Saying Wu-Tang owned ‘90s hip-hop is a slight overstatement—Dre, B.I.G., Pete Rock, Mannie Fresh, and dozens of other legendary figures also chipped in—but it’s also inaccurate to say that they completely fell off thereafter. Yes, they never reached the heights of their initial 1993-97 run, but they remained one of the most talented and idiosyncratic groups in rap. In the aughts, there was at least one classic album (Supreme Clientele), a couple near-classics (Fishscale, Only Built for Cuban Linx II), and several underrated jewels (8 Diagrams, No Said Date, Legend of the Liquid Sword) tucked into their catalog, and even their lesser, disappointing releases (Birth of a Prince, Wu Massacre, Tical 0) usually contained a banger or two. We’ve highlighted our 36 favorite of these, using Spotify, into one playlist. But, before we get into the the list, a few disclaimers:
* GZA’s Grandmasters, RZA’s Digi Snacks, and the Wu-Tang’s 8 Diagrams are not available on streaming, so we have not included any of those tracks here.
* We are not including tracks that the Wu-Tang guested on (hence no Kanye tracks).
* In the interest of including as broad a selection of tracks from the Wu-Tang Clan, while still remaining honest to the concept, we didn’t include eight tracks from Supreme Clientele.
With those qualifiers, enjoy the list and subscribe to the playlist right here.
36. “Meth Vs. Chef 2”, Meth + Ghost + Rae, Wu Massacre, 2010
35. “Silent”, GZA, Legend of the Liquid Sword, 2002
34. “Wu Tang,” U-God ft. Method Man, Dopium, 2009
33. “Ill Figures,” Wu-Tang Clan, Chamber Music, 2009
32. “All Natural,” Masta Killa, Selling My Soul, 2012
31. “Pioneer The Frontier,” Wu-Tang Clan, A Better Tomorrow, 2014
30. “Biochemical Equation,” RZA ft. Wu-Tang Clan and MF DOOM, Wu-Tang Meets Indie Culture, 2005
29. “Sound the Horns,” Wu-Tang Clan, Chamber Music, 2009
28. “9 Milli Bros,” Ghostface Killah ft. Wu-Tang Clan, Fishscale, 2006
27. “Keep Watch,” Wu-Tang Clan, A Better Tomorrow, 2014
26. “City High,” Inspectah Deck, The Movement, 2003
25. “When I’m Writing,” Killah Priest, Black August, 2003
24. “If Time is Money,” Wu-Tang Clan, The Saga Continues, 2017
23. “The Glide”, Method Man, 4:21…The Day After, 2006
22. “Ghost Showers,” Ghostface Killah, Bulletproof Wallets, 2001
21. “Grab the Microphone,” Masta Killa, No Said Date, 2004
20. “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” Wu-Tang Clan, Iron Flag, 2001
19. “Must Be Bobby,” RZA, Digital Bullet, 2001
18. “Colombian Ties,” GZA, Pro Tools, 2008
17. “Got to Have It,” Method Man, 4:21…The Day After, 2006
16. “Shakey Dog,” Ghostface Killah, Fishscale, 2006
15. “Pop Shots,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Osirus, 2005
14. “The Sun,” Ghostface, Bulletproof Wallet outtake, 2001
13. “Grits,” RZA, Birth of a Prince, 2003
12. “Pyrex Vision”, Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx 2, 2009.
11. “Run,” Ghostface, The Pretty Toney Album, 2004
10. “We Pop”, RZA
Birth of a Prince, 2003
In the end, the Wu-Tang sound—stringy hip-hop minimalism with Memphis soul samples and crusty, boom bap beats—had little lasting impact on hip-hop. By 1996, rap had moved on to the jiggy beats of Diddy and the Trackmasters, and, shortly thereafter, the pumped-up Orleans bounce of Mannie Fresh; and by 1997, so had the Wu, unleashing their own variants on their signature template. On this track from 2003’s Birth of a Prince, RZA tries to catch up to the rap mainstream by taking a page from G-Unit, unleashing bronzed-out F-funk over a paean to popped champagne bottles, “hoes in different areas,” and “the bass shake in the club.” It really shouldn’t work, which makes this earworm semi-hit all the more remarkable.
9. “Holla”, Ghostface Killah
The Pretty Toney Album, 2004
“I’m from a place where fish was made,” Ghostface rasps on this track’s opening line, and, like many of Ghost’s best lyrics, it means absolutely nothing and everything. The song is alternately tough-as-nails and unimaginably fragile, from the quivering strings of the The Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” to Ghostface’s taunt brag, “Like, an angry, cripple, man, don’t push me!” Ghost isn’t constructing meaning here as much as he’s conjuring mood, and, as such, there’s no real production on here to speak of; the Delfonics track is left as-is—no loop, chop or cut—as Ghost raps over the broken boombox beat, channeling a time and place that is bitterly, sweetly nostalgic.
8. “Pass the Bone (Remix)”, Masta Killa
Made in Brooklyn, 2006
In the aftermath of World War II, there were stories that pockets of Japanese soldiers remained stranded on deserted islands. Isolated, and without any news of Shigemitsu’s surrender, they fought on for many years after that war had ended.* Masta Killa is the Wu’s version of that. He was a disciple of GZA who was only sparingly featured on Wu tracks during the group’s glory years, and, as other members were trying to update their sound (see RZA’s “We Pop”) or disappearing into their own aesthetic (pretty much any Ghostface record), Masta Killa made two classic albums (2004’s No Said Date and 2006’s Made in Brooklyn) anchored by his dense lyricism and crusty breakbeats. These late-period jewels sounded like they had been delivered to the 2000s from Wu headquarters circa ‘96 in a hazy time machine. “Pass The Bone,” a highlight from Made in Brooklyn, is rap as cinema verité, conjuring loose Saturday nights, coughed-up blunts, random hook-ups, and stoop conversations over a straightforward soul loop.
* If you don’t believe me, there’s a Gilligan’s Island’s episode dedicated to this.
7. “Animal Planet”, GZA
Legend of the Liquid Sword, 2002
GZA was always Wu-Tang’s most accomplished technician. Where Method Man or ODB’s lines contained a visceral velocity, crushing coal to near-perfect lyrical diamonds in split seconds, GZA’s rhymes seemed as if they were written in tomes over the course of decades, revealing calculated phonetic associations and delicately crafted allusions. “Animal Planet” abstracts the violence and politics of the streets into a jungle metaphor; the tarantula is the “hype man” and chimps “sling in trees” with “elephants for security,” while everglades were “controlled by the gators” before they were “crashed by the crocs who came years later.” The conceit is anchored by a lush beat and the simple, half-whispered chorus—“it’s a jungle sometimes”—that appropriates Grandmaster Flash’s classic line from “The Message.”
6. “Nutmeg”, Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele, 2000
The best art teaches you how to see it, writing its own rules and daring viewers to decipher the lines, hues, and figures on its own terms, and not according to your preconceived notions of how it should be. Metaphorically speaking, that’s exactly what Ghostface did on 2000’s Supreme Clientele, bending nouns to verbs (“watch me Dolly Dick it”), building up a thick lattice of NYC esoterica (Scotty Woody, Clarks, Optimo), and tilting towards the undecipherable (sample lyric: “Dancing with Blanche and them bitches, flicking deuce pictures/ Kick down the ace of spades, snatch Jack riches”). “Nutmeg” was produced by Ghostface’s barber, Black Moes-Art—which is as perfect and makes as much sense as anything else on Ghostface’s wacky masterpiece.
5. “Black Widow, Pt. 2,” Bobby Digital
Digital Bullet, 2001
It only lasts a little over two minutes—not including the ponderous outro—but this song is terrifying, sonically and morally. For the second time in his career, RZA samples Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” but where his previous flip on “Tearz” emphasized the track’s hardwon soul—contrasting the source track’s anachronistic strings and vocal harmonies against some of the toughest drums RZA ever produced—“Black Widow, Pt. 2” strips the sample to the bone, focusing on Rene’s scream—a primal, sensual, terrifying plea that loops over and over, building a screeching house-of-trap horrors, backlighting the moment where ODB’s sputtering, disconnected misogyny (“bitch, you belong to me”) turns to violence and the song’s female subject screams, “Dirt, I don’t want to die.” None of this is defensible—it’s morally repellent—but the best Wu was frequently ugly.
4. “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” The Wu Tang Clan
The W, 2000
Middle-period Ghostface—starting with 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album and lasting through 2009’s Ghostdini—found the MC trying to formulate himself as a post-crack-era Al Green, appropriating classic soul tracks verbatim (e.g., “Big Girl,” “Holla”) and rapping in a pleading, quivering voice that imbued 36 lifetimes of desire, confusion, loathing and transcendence. This track from 2000’s The W laid the groundwork for all that, building off the symphonic, proto-prog soul of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By” and chronicling the “havoc of the streets of Satan,” the murdered babies, raped women, and “crack and guns” of the “early ’80s.” Even if his lyrics amount to little more than clever phonetic interlacing (sample: “Whippy got hit up with the big shit, bong bong”), Ghostface’s voice—cracked, pleading, piercing—seems to have absorbed all that. When RZA comes on the track’s second verse, translating Ghostface’s grief by making the personal political and the political historical—referencing Malcolm getting “shot in the chest” and Marcus Garvey getting deported because “he tried to spark us”—the track enters the upper pantheon of Wu Tang, regardless of the era.
3. “House of the Flying Daggers,” Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, 2009
By the late-aughts, Wu Tang were more or less playing hip-hop’s oldie circuit, and the prospect of them revisiting a deeply cherished album from their golden period seemed fraught, to say the least. And while Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 doesn’t quite match the considerable heights of the original, the uneasy, propulsive “House of the Flying Daggers” is monumental. Ghost, painting in his usual loopy word spasms, threatens to “humiliate, brutalize, Ruger pop, pulverize,” as Rae requests that they “bury me in Africa with whips and spears and rough diamonds from Syria.” The production, provided by J Dilla, cyphering the dirty adrenaline of classic RZA, simply bulldozes you.
2. “Cherchez LaGhost”, Ghostface Killah
Supreme Clientele, 2000
It’s easy to forget that the Wu-Tang didn’t have much of a imperial, decadent period. They began as an underground unit from a (very) outer-borough, cataloging the litter of broken crack vials and busted 40 ounces, and, after shortly flirting with pop success, they and their quirky, never-quite-mainstream sound quickly slid back into obscurity, foregoing the usual accoutrements of hip-hop royalty (velvet roaches, Superhead, and French vanilla Ciroc). Still, this song, couched in the cooing cocaine big-band disco of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s “Cherchez La Femme,” feels like the party after the afterparty, the slice of euphoria before the comedown. Rarely have the Wu-Tang sounded as if they were having this much fun. It didn’t last long, but it was a good minute (or three).
1. “Careful (Click, Click)”, Wu-Tang Clan
The W, 2000
The unvarnished soul sample that bleeds out of the track’s opening hints at classic Wu, but this banger from The W feels utterly unlike anything that came before it, or after. As a forlorn flute slinks between the track’s hovering bassline and tight boom bap beat, “Careful (Click, Click)” doesn’t so much describe the grit and toxicity of urban life as it revels in in, recoiling in the tight spaces where brown paper bags, dirty syringes, and cocked hammers mark the dark spaces of Wu’s boarding houses/imaginary slums, bobbing with a millennial sleekness that underlines the track’s post-industrial menace, eerily evoking future trauma through Ghost’s insistence, nearly a year before 9/11, that the “boxcutter went click click.” Quite simply, this is the Wu at the height of their powers.