On Monday night, a group of roughly 200 people sat quietly in the heated dome outside New York's MoMA PS1 for what was touted by associate curator Jenny Schlenzka as "the first, the last, the only public listening session" of Wu-Tang Clan's mysterious seventh album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. The album has been the subject of much discussion since — in a unique twist on art, music and commerce — there will be only one copy, which will be sold on auction site Paddle8.com. According to Wu-Tang leader the RZA, it already has offers up to $5 million.
The album packaging was on display at PS1, flanked by four museum ropes and two security guards, looking like the world's dopest safety deposit box. (Later, it was explained that the actual music — and, much to the dismay of airport security, the key to open the box — is currently in Morocco). The animated Paddle8 co-founder Alexander Gilkes hyped up this attempt to "forever etch the Clan into the annals of contemporary culture" in the booming voice of a London carnival barker who didn't already have us in a tent.
Guests and journalists were forced to put their cell phones in plastic bags at the front desk to avoid the 13-minute album excerpt from leaking. Whether you entered the dome thinking the elaborate packaging — hand-carved nickel casing, 174-page annotated leather-bound book — and high price was brilliant art or high-concept hucksterism, all arguments screeched to a halt when hearing the music.
Simply put, if the full, 128-minute Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is as solid as the 13 minutes heard Monday night, it could be the group's most popular album since 1997. Playing like Wu-Tang's version of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind or Metallica's Death Magnetic, the music hearkened back to the RZA's glory days between the 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and 1997's double-disc follow-up Wu-Tang Forever. It was during this time that he helmed seven records, including GZA's Liquid Swords and Ghostface Killah's Ironman, that have come to be regarded as one of hip-hop's greatest creative streaks.
"Yo," the voice of Raekwon opened the excerpt with a laugh. "Welcome. Time to shoot back down to the 36 Chambers." Unlike last year's lush, live-instrument-assisted LP, A Better Tomorrow, the snippets were full of the grimy breaks, dirty snare sounds and kung-fu samples that the group was forged on. Sirens and gunshots and firecrackers exploded about, flecking a long-lost, rewardingly familiar, sample-fueled lo-fi crunch with Bomb Squad-style chaos. What sounds like a high-velocity soul sample honks for a Method Man verse and some scratching. Some deep background vocals turned out to be Cher. "Rainy Dayz," the paranoid fourth single from Raekwon's 1996 debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, got a sequel of sorts.
"The irony of it," RZA said after of a vintage-sounding album which only one person may get to hear, "is we wanted to do something for the fans."
After the listening, RZA and collaborator Cilvaringz held court for a Q&A with Genius editor Sasha-Frere Jones, explaining how they attempted to recapture the Wu-Tang's signature sound. They said the other members of the group recorded their verses not knowing the album was going to have such a unique release, and that 80 percent of the vocals were re-recorded to get the aggressive delivery of the early years. RZA said the entire Wu-Tang Clan, many of whom have been outspoken about the RZA's creative decisions in the past, are on board with the plan.
"To have everybody in the crew agree that this is official," said RZA. "That hasn't happened in a long time."
As for the potential of new music from the Wu-Tang, while nothing was said outright, RZA told Frere-Jones, "I told you backstage. I think I'm done, kid."
Copyright on the music will remain intact for 88 years, Cilvaringz told Forbes. Until then, what happens with the music inside the box — whether it will remain an investor's treasure or a leaked download for the world to embrace — will be up to the discretion of the album's sole owner.
"Hopefully it will be a philanthropist," says RZA.