RZA / Various Artists – The Man With the Iron Fists
Stone Temple Music: 2012
It’s almost a surprise that it hasn’t happened already: what with his affiliation with Quentin Tarantino, his numerous gigs scoring movies, and of course Wu-Tang’s famed love affair with low budget Chinese martial arts flicks, it was probably only a matter of time before RZA decided to helm his own kung-fu film. The Man With the Iron Fists is sure to be interesting in and of itself, (it’s set in 19th century China but manages to star the RZA himself as a mystical designer of weapons and Russell Crowe as an opium-addled soldier said to be partially inspired by ODB), but the soundtrack is what will have piqued the interest of much of the RZA’s less cinematically minded fans. Featuring original new tracks from Kanye, Wu-Tang (!) and a slew of other pretty big names, it’s something of a mini-event in itself.
From the very beginning of the soundtrack, it’s apparent that the RZA’s focus on his directorial and acting duties hasn’t diluted his ability at crafting top-tier hip-hop. Soundtracks will always feel a little more all over the place than a traditional album, but The Man with the Iron Fists feels coherent rather than cobbled together largely due to its consistent high quality and its fittingly cinematic, wide-screen feel.
The vast majority of the songs here sound huge, thanks in no small part to the live instrumentation that backs up much of the accomplished spitting that takes place. Live instruments and hip-hop can be shaky bedfellows under a lot of circumstances, (basically when they are being brought together by anyone but The Roots), but here they prove to be a perfect match. RZA is smart when it comes to picking his collaborators: bands like The Black Keys and BADBADNOTGOOD are often the ones jamming in the background here, and they are no strangers to this hip-hop shit. On the contrary, they are a big part of why songs like the RZA’s own “The Baddest Man Alive” and the Wu-Tang and Kool G Rap collab “Rivers of Blood” sound so ruthless.
The album’s smartest trick is the way in which it balances this excellent, cinematically angled music with the more traditional thrills of a rap record. A lot of the rappers here bring their A game even though their stature means that they wouldn’t necessarily have to–it would be pleasure enough to just here all these guys jostling for space on the same record. You get to hear Ghostface, M.O.P. and Pharaohe Monch all body the same track on “Black Out”; Method Man trades bars with Freddie Gibbs and Streetlife on “Built For This”; Danny Brown, Raekwon, Joell Ortiz and Pusha T share space on the same sleepy beat on “Tick Tock”; and RZA give a leg up to up-and-comers Flatbush Zombies on “Just Blowin’ in the Wind”.
There are a couple of signs that this is a soundtrack album and not just a hip-hop record: Corinne Bailey Rae and Cantonese/Mandarin singer Frances Yip both make appearances, and there are a couple covers of some old soul standards to add a little pace. And, it does a good job of the making the movie feel like a pretty compelling prospect. Really though, the feeling is that RZA felt like using the soundtrack as an excuse for putting out a little late career proof of his continuing ability to craft killer hip-hop, which no-one is going to complain about.