Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
The decision to separate—however briefly—from a group and make a solo record carries with it a certain narrative: an artist is ready to stand on their own two feet in the limelight. Sometimes people just want something for themselves, even if just for 10 or 12 songs.
Since 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan has been both the exception and the rule when it comes to how its members approach solo offerings. Wu-Tang started for the exact purpose of launching each of its individual members to solo stardom, and yet more often than not, the end result of Wu solo efforts is unmistakably Wu-Tang-ish. Maybe it’s because its members regularly drop in and out of each other’s projects. Or it could be that RZA holds court over most everything the collective does. For a long time, the continuity between Wu projects was so strong that it was tough to differentiate the side projects from the main gig. Imagine if Mick Jagger or Keith Richards branched off and went solo with another member of the Stones. Early records from Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man had that same indistinguishable feel.
But one Wu-Tang associate wasn’t going to be tethered too closely to a script. Return To The 36 Chambers was Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s moment to break off from the sprawling hip-hop outfit, and by the record’s release in March 1995, he was plenty ready for it. No other Wu member cried so maniacally to be broken out from the pack than ODB, and really, no other member deserved it as much. Equal parts MC and bizarre hip-hop court jester, ODB was a bombastic character who could be hilarious, frightening, and downright strange in equal measure. You never quite knew what to make of him, but you couldn’t get enough of him. That said, building a record around his eccentric personality almost made too much sense. It was bound to happen, and when it did, it made for one of the most chaotic but intoxicating hip-hop records of the last 20 years.
Return To The 36 Chambers undoubtedly ranks at or near the top of Wu-Tang’s long list of solo and studio efforts. Like the collaborative’s gritty debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), ODB’s solo debut feels as much like a window into Wu-Tang’s insulated hip-hop world as it does as an actual record. It smacks with raw production, hard bop jazz samples, off the wall skits, the group’s love of kung-fu flicks, and other assorted pop arcana. This owes much more to RZA’s expert studio touch and master vision for the Wu-Tang empire. ODB’s contributions, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as finessed. In fact, beyond carrying the lyrical load on two hypnotically addictive singles (“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo”), ODB refuses to play it straight. Instead, he yells, slurs, and spits rhymes like a frenzied madman halfway off the rails. He drops a scatter-brained verse on “Snakes” (sample lyric: “The style I’m ampin the… fuck my name, who I be? Fuck the game, it’s all about the money!”), works himself into a manic sweat on “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” and “The Stomp,” and stumbles over verses like a back-alley drunk throughout.
Given ODB gets an assistant producer credit, his waywardness on record is likely at least halfway by design, and if it is, he pulls the misfit shtick off effortlessly to his advantage. For all the work that went into building the Wu-Tang Clan into one of the tightest, fiercest collaboratives in hip-hop, ODB’s value to the Clan rested more in his dynamic personality than his musical credentials. The cartoonishly off-the-wall yet controversial image he had already built his name on gave him leeway to play the role of the erratic, spastic, unreliable MC on Return. After all, this was the ODB we had all come to expect. The more zonked out and off his rocker he sounded, the more he actually played into listener’s perception of him as the Wu’s lovable black sheep. When Return needed a little more coherence and flow, he had RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, and others to pass the mic to and tighten up the slack. ODB had his moments, too (“I pull strings like Jimi Hendrix,” he spits on “Damage”), but lyrical craft played second fiddle to bringing the bawdy showmanship.
Although it frames itself more as a celebration of ODB’s irascible cult of personality than any kind of honest-to-goodness musical statement, the record became as much in its own haphazard way. Return To The 36 Chambers has endured to stand as one of the most interesting and subversive efforts of the ’90s hip-hop canon. Even though it hasn’t been as easy to laugh along with his antics in the years since his death in 2004, Russell Jones made damn sure to leave behind a sonic snapshot of the world’s craziest MC in his prime. It’s messy and chaotic in spots—lots of them, actually. But there’s not a single dull moment to be found on the record, and for a guy who put a premium on being entertaining above all other considerations, it’s tough to look at Return To The 36 Chambers as anything but a resounding success.