As you listen to Selling My Soul, you might find it hard to believe that Masta Killa was the last official emcee to join Wu-Tang Clan, that he didn’t really start rapping until he joined the group. It’s hard to believe for a lot of reasons. First, this is purely veteran, laid-back flow top to bottom. Masta Killa’s art is not in the punchline, not in rhyming theatrics, but in a devastatingly precise wordplay, the kind that doesn’t need bells and whistles. Like his last two solo records, 2004’s No Said Date and 2006’s Made in Brooklyn, Selling My Soul is unerringly steady.
But the surprisingly thing about Masta Killa’s late arrival to Wu-Tang is that, on this album, he plays the role of historian for the group. Though Masta Killa himself claims in the title to be giving us his soul — and not selling it in a Faustian way, but rather convincing us of its deep ties to music — that soul is clearly inextricably linked to the Wu-Tang. Hence you get a masterfully in-the-cut tribute to Ghostface on “R U Listening” or closer “Dirty Soul,” which not only pays tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard but also finds Masta Killa actually borrowing from ODB’s off-filter gonzo-flow. Not that he doesn’t sound like himself, but he definitely takes on a new, ragged edge. He also works classic Wu lines into “Intro” (“smokin’ on the mic like Smokin’ Joe Frazier” or “we burn so sweet, the thrill of victory/defeat” for example), directly borrowing from the past to show you his present state of mind.
The past in this record goes back further than that, though, past Wu-Tang and into Masta Killa’s other muses, mainly soul music. He lists a litany of influences later in the record, but hearing these beats you don’t need them. They take RZA’s rainy, soul sampling — or the sped-up samples that came later, whichever you prefer — and tilts them on their head, giving the original artist more of the mix than the beat itself. The beat hides behind the keening vocals on “R U Listening.” “Things Just Ain’t the Same” barely adds drums to the original beat. The excellent “Food”, produced by 9th Wonder, balances beat and sample a bit more, but the samples are still whole pieces, rarely cut up, so you get the past running alongside the present.
The result is an almost professorial vibe from Masta Killa. “The slowest I can go is knowledge, there’s no escape,” he spits, and he does seem to be trying to pass on lessons by the ton here, from a more zen space than any of his Wu-Tang kin. But it’s his unpredictable rhymes and laid-back demeanor that keep it from being overly self-righteous. The album can get a bit too mired in the past sometimes, as when Kurupt (the only guest here) quotes “Fuck Wit Dre Day” to reference his own past with a line that feels entirely too dated and linked to that long-ago beef between Dre and Eazy-E. “Wise Words” is a spoken-word piece over Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” that feels more like mixtape fodder than a good middle-album track.
These few missteps aside, though, Selling My Soul is a great surprise from Masta Killa. Surprise because it came before his next anticipated album, Loyalty is Royalty, but also because even with him covering just about every lyric here, this album never stagnates. The same reasons Masta Killa doesn’t always out on full-crew albums from Wu-Tang is the same reason his solo albums are so good. He doesn’t need to shout or bluster. Masta Killa is the guy in the back, softly, articulately saying the smartest things in the room.