The best collections come along for a reason. They're not teasers for new albums or tours, they're not thrown together like shit to a wall, and they're not compiled from two studio albums and that remix you can't get anywhere else. They're reminders, reintroductions. Done right, they play like a faded relationship: We don't hear from you much anymore, but we'll always remember those six months in the tenth grade.
For a collection to work, said artist has (a) broken up, (b) died, or (c) slowly stopped making records. Wu-Tang has done a little of all three, and Legend, rather than mask the ups and downs, boxes them into one sixteen-track document.
Wu-history tells us that the Clan was spearheaded in 1992 by producer RZA, who convinced emcees GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Ol' Dirty Bastard, U-God, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa to fork over $100 each to record a single called "Protect Ya Neck." Backed with a monster B-side, the solo shot "Method Man," the Wu put a dent in '93 before releasing their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) later that year.
If you want a clear picture of what the Wu-Tang Clan meant to hip-hop in the mid-1990s, go to Manchester and ask a 34-year-old pub-rat about the arrival of the Stone Roses in 1989. It wasn't just about music; it was an identity, both cryptic and familiar. It was literally the sound of something becoming cool as soon as you heard it.
It was everything hip-hop should be: raw, hungry, endlessly creative. And it lasted.
For a few years, at least. By the time Wu-Tang Forever, the group's '97 double-album, rolled around, the already-crowded Clan was looking into expansion, or at least recruiting second-stringers. The original nine-man crew allowed separate personalities to emerge, but Wu-affiliates, honorary members whose relationship to the Clan was never fully realized, spun in and out of the lineup at will (remember Poppa Wu?). Side projects and guest appearances only added to the confusion.
Legend acknowledges these changes by, well, ignoring them. It trims the fat of the many solo records released in the wake of the Wu-explosion by focusing on Clan material only. That means nothing from the mighty Tical, Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords or Supreme Clientele albums, but plenty from 36 Chambers and Forever. In the process, we learn that while the best Wu work wasn't done as a group, the magic of having all eight emcees together at once outweighs any discussion of the music itself.
No matter how faithful, all collections have their bumps, points of difference that spark heated debate among fans. Legend relies far too heavily on the early years, for instance, pulling nearly half its tracks from 36 Chambers while ignoring much of The W and leaving out Iron Flag almost completely (only the great "Pinky Ring" makes the cut). More baffling is the inclusion of sub-par rarities (a cover of Run D.M.C.'s "Sucker M.C.'s" from the In Tha Beginning ... There Was Rap compilation) over solid album tracks ("A Better Tomorrow" from Forever or "Rules" from Iron Flag).
But Legend is still the most thorough Wu-Tang collection to date, one that manages to hit all the bases without spilling over into a multi-disc set. That it was released just weeks before the mysterious death of O.D.B., the most unpredictable member of the unwieldy group, only makes stronger the yearning of this line, spoken at the beginning of "Can It Be All So Simple": "Everybody's talkin' 'bout the good old days ... "