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Sam Chennault

Content Curious’ Joshua Glazer on Transitioning from Criticism to Creative Services

Over the past 25 years, Joshua Glazer has had a frontrow seat to the various twists and turns in the professional lives of the creative class. He was a freelance journalist for alt-weeklies in the late-90s before the bottom fell out on that market, and he later served as editor-in-chief for URB Magazine as it transitioned from a community and genre-focused publication to a national, trendsetting media brand. When URB went belly up during the transition from print to digital, he started his own creative services agency, Content Curious, where he is now trying to map out a path in a post-AI landscape. We recently caught up and discussed how he’s navigated the seemingly constant set of challenges for the creative class, and how he plans to survive and thrive in an increasingly uncertain terrain.

What have you been doing for the past 25 years, professionally speaking?  

Like so many others, I started as a music journalist, originally in Detroit in the very late ‘90s. I think 1999 was when I had my first thing published in a classic alt-weekly – RIP to pretty much all the alt-weeklies. From there, I graduated to working at national publications, eventually moving to Los Angeles to be an editor at URB Magazine, where I rose up the ranks to become the editor-in-chief. I was there until 2010, which was when the last print version was published. We kind of kicked around online for another year or two, but like so many other publications, we didn't stick the landing going from print to digital. 

After that I went and spent a couple of years overseas and came back to LA in 2015, which is when I launched Content Curious, a branding and content studio working with a lot of music clients. We also started to build out more of a business around working with tech companies, wellness brands, and some impact brands, with a focus originally on editorial content, [before] moving into UX content and gradually into more strategic branding work.

It sounds like you and I have similar shapes to our careers. I started writing in maybe 2002, really focusing on editorial for the first half of my career, and then finding ways to triage that as things changed.

Yeah, I feel like I caught the very tail end of the music journalist fantasy. The week I started at URB, they put me on a plane to go to New York and hang out with Prefuse 73 for 48 hours for a cover story. A month or two later, I got to go to Berlin for a whirlwind trip for another piece. It really felt for a hot minute like the Almost Famous fantasy of the music journalist right at the time when the economics just stopped working for such things and print not-so-slowly was overtaken by digital. No matter how many ways you try to slice and dice it, the model for digital is quantity over quality, which means more small stuff and not the big story writing that I think a lot of us got into it for.

At the same time the notion of critical opinion was flattened in a lot of ways when everyone could just access everything themselves and inform their own opinions and share their opinions. Everyone became a critic at the same time. 

I had an interesting interview earlier with Hazel Savage, the head of music intelligence for SoundCloud, and it corresponds to what we're talking about now. I hadn't thought about this dynamic for many years. But in my conversation with Hazel, she said she started her career as a record store clerk, and now she works with AI to help with music metadata tagging and curation and charting. It's just not possible to manually sort through all this music, so you need help from the AI. I guess it corresponded to what you were saying, just in terms of tech enabling the sudden proliferation of content on both the creator and media sides.

In that regard I'm conscientious of my particular hybrid power. My dream job as a music magazine editor, saying what's cool, what's not, in a lot of ways that wasn't supplanted by platforms right away, it was supplanted by bloggers. Most of them didn't make money, but they did it ‘cause they wanted to do it.  

That whole blog era of music, that was sort of the gap between [media and social platforms]. I think about tools like Hype Machine. There were a couple of years where Hype Machine was like, you don't need a music magazine anymore. You got a Hype Machine and a Hype Machine is going to aggregate it for you. As the quantity continued to grow and grow, Hype Machine could cover way more stuff than we ever could as more and more music came out. 

Out of all the ways you've seen the industry change over these past 25 years since you've been in it, how do you think the AI era stacks up in terms of pure disruption?

I think AI is different. I think that the current model we have for creative services is [ending]. Meaningful commentary and criticism as a business model is so long gone. That's what we've been talking about up until now – the end of criticism and commentary as a product in and of itself – and it's not been viable for a very long time. And that’s fine.

I divide it in my head in three ways. There's creativity, which is producing the stuff. There is commentary and criticism, where people come to get your take on something. And then there's creative services, where you are producing media, visual, text, video, in the service of another function. Creative services is producing something as part of a funnel that goes from the consumer who wants something, and the seller who provides whatever that something is, and you're the stuff in the middle that makes them aware, helps them find what they want, gets them the solution they need and makes those connections. 

I think that's the era we've been in for quite a while. Creative services is really what sustains the creative class. People with that skill set, people who were able to pivot from creativity and commentary to creative services have thrived in the digital era. And that is about to be interrupted. Not entirely, but I do think that the reality is that sometimes work is work, and even the creative stuff requires a certain degree of rote work that has to happen in the bottom. 

What I think I'm hearing is you're saying that AI could potentially disrupt this particular epoch. If criticism and journalism transition to creative services as a way for people in our community to exist, in a professional sense, do you have a sense of what's next after large portions of creative services fall through?

I wish I did. I know for myself, I have already been making the transition from writing, from the actual creation of content into the strategy level. I've gotten very involved in seeing what these AI tools can actually do and helping my clients utilize those tools. Because it seems easy, but you very quickly hit the wall with AI. I think you're gonna see a lot of people rush into AI, and then either gonna discover the stuff's good enough, or the stuff's not good enough, or the stuff never really mattered. It wasn't what propelled the consumer to begin with.

You mentioned not being able to really see clearly what's the next big thing in terms of people within our community. But also I was struck by the initiative that you're taking, your focus trying to explore different ways to kind of exist within the space. 

Absolutely, and you have to. I've perpetually been the…I don't want to say the last guy on the sinking ship, but I've been through it a few times now. I had to make the transition from critic to creative services.

I do think that ultimately as long as brands want to keep their hands on the reins to one degree or another, I think there's going to be space for people who understand  the art of the science of communication to do it. 

My advice to anybody who's in this, and who had a comfortable living making words, is you got to go up a level if you want to survive, thrive, whatever. You have to go up a level and start thinking about why your words work and frame that in a way that people can understand and frame that in a way that the AI can understand.

You can reach out to Joshua for a free AI copy consultation here.

SoundCloud's Hazel Savage on the Creative Opportunities of AI

For the first few years of its existence, SoundCloud had a rep as a dynamic, mutable creator ecosystem, but one that could be disorganized and alienating for the uninitiated. That’s changed dramatically over the years, and the service has become a more welcoming place to its millions of listeners, and has harnessed real value for its deep bench of talented artists. A not insignificant degree of credit belongs to Hazel Savage, her co-founder Aron Pettersson and their team. Savage began her career as a record store clerk in the UK, before quickly ingraining herself in the digital music world through stints at Shazam, Universal, Pandora, and Bandlab. In 2018, she co-founded the AI tagging company Musiio and served as CEO. Through its ingenious technology, the company was able to use AI to process and understand the relationships and attributes of millions of tracks. This was useful in deciphering things such as genre or key, and developing throughlines between tracks that powered discovery. It was particularly advantageous for SoundCloud, who acquired the company in 2022. That service focused Musiio’s tech on the millions of tracks by its creators and provided clear pathways to discovery for those tracks.

Third Bridge Creative co-founder Sam Chennault recently caught up with Savage to have an open and clear dialogue about the possibilities and limitations of AI, and how these new technologies work with human workforces.

As someone who’s spent two decades working in the digital music space, I've always heard terms like algorithmic curation, audio fingerprinting, big data, etc. As it’s been presented to us in this past year, AI seems to be something novel, but is there a throughline between all these concepts?

To me, the throughline has always been looking at the problem and then looking at the solution. I feel like those of us who've worked in music and curation for a long time went from a phase where scarcity was our biggest challenge to massive abundance, where all music is available online at your fingertips at any given second. There’s 100,000-plus tracks uploaded every day. The challenge then becomes not what can you access, but what should you access? How do you actually find the stuff that you want to listen to either from a curation or search perspective? 

Back when I started in a record store 18 years ago, we didn't talk about things like algorithmic playlisting, collaborative filtering, or even AI fingerprinting because we didn't need these things. You could walk into the HV on Oxford Street in London where I worked and you say, “I like classical cello music, what do you recommend?” And I'm walking over and picking you out two or three things. We've gone from that very manual process to an automated process, so the technology has risen to suit the occasion.

It's an interesting concept. The technology, and the tools, were built in order to engage with a certain market dynamic where we went from scarcity to suddenly 100,000 tracks being released every day.

I’ve always tried to view it through the lens of positivity. I came up in a time where releasing music was insanely expensive and very limited to people with the financial means, and that's no longer the case. I would never want to go backwards. I would never want to limit creativity or say that we need less music. I'm always for more music and more creation.

Makes a lot of sense. Do you think people like promoters, A&R, music supervisors, DJs, curators, radio programmers, critics – people who were traditionally thought of as tastemakers and gatekeepers – are going to exist, or will AI displace them?

It’s an interesting question. I think that there's something very human about finding someone who likes what you like, and then wanting to know what else they like. And I think that's true whether it's recommendations for clothing and footwear, right through to restaurants and music. We're social beasts. So I don't ever think AI truly replaces that need for the tastemaker and the fascination humans have with the tastemaker. But you can't hire a tastemaker for every single person on your platform. Zane Lowe is a great rock curator, but we're not going to send his playlist to everyone. I'm a Bon Jovi fan, and another person might be a Coldplay fan, and he might not playlist either of those, so it doesn't necessarily scale the way that AI does. I think where AI is powerful is it can put very, very personalized recommendations in front of millions of people for a very, very low cost.

If you just played me one song right now, Sam, and you asked me to list the genres, the key, and the BPM, and say whether there's a vocal, I'll do it, I'll do it a hundred percent flawlessly, and I'll do it better than an AI could, with more level of detail. But what I can't do is five million of those a day, and that's what AI can do. Like I said, I don't want to stop people creating music just because we can't tag it quick enough, that's not where we should put a limit on creativity, but understanding where the limits of AI are is really powerful.

As someone who’s worked at tech companies, I’ve also been told that I should never suggest that a human can do anything better than a machine.

I feel like there's a real benefit and a real power in talking about AI’s limitations, because that's when you start to see that there really isn't anything to be scared of. Talking about the limitations makes people comfortable. To the man on the street, they might just think AI playlists are taking jobs from human curators, and when you start to understand the reasons why you would choose a human curator or why you would choose an AI curator, it starts to make sense and you start to really understand.

Developers may feel very strongly that technology is the only way to do things, and people that have got 20 years' history in the music industry at the major labels may feel very strongly that only humans can do things. I just strongly feel that the reality is somewhere in the middle and that people like me, or maybe people like yourself, we understand the power of technology. But we also understand the benefits of humans, and if you can figure out how to harness the best of both, that's when you figure it out. The minute you just blindly say, "there's only one way of doing things and we cannot change and this is absolutely a hundred percent the best way of doing things," that's when you're wrong, and I think that's true whether you're on the tech side or the human side. So, for me, I’m trying to figure out how you blend the best of both worlds.

What are some of the limitations of AI? Can you expound on that?

I'm not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but I’m fascinated and I love to really dig in on where the ethical limitations are and where they should be. AI is good at doing something that's super tedious, the super boring [work] that humans don't want to do—for example, listening to hundreds of songs a day and writing down the key that they're all in. That's not super exciting or creative work, and humans don't really want to do it. So AI is very helpful in that category. The second category where AI is really helpful is when it's something that humans aren't physically capable of doing, or where there are chances a human might miss or miscalculate. If I've listened to 200 songs in C sharp, I'm going to make more errors.

We have a great use case for AI. Now we can say this application is for good more than for bad. And I'm really fascinated by companies that want to look at these ethical frameworks and want to apply them because I think it reassures a lot of the creative people in our industries that we're not just going ahead as fast as possible and doing anything Jurassic Park-style. We stopped to think if we should. It's really about the ethical and the integral integration of these technologies...I'm willing to step up and be one of the custodians of this technology because I think it's really powerful and can bring a lot of benefits.

Music for Forests: A Curator Q&A

At Third Bridge, we rarely do the same thing twice. Still, a recent project presented a curveball. Redwoods and Records is a community of nature and music enthusiasts who share the goal of providing soundtracks for redwood trails in Northern California. Ultimately, they hope that this experience will create awareness, foster appreciation, and drive donations to organizations devoted to preserving these fragile ecosystems. They turned to us to help curate these playlists. In order to scale this over a hundred-plus trails, we first created a taxonomy of trail types—old growth, steep inclines, etc.—along with situational variables: morning, sunny-day hikes, and so on. Next, we unleashed our music experts. Below, we chat with project curators Stephanie Garr, Justin Farrar, and Adrian Spinelli about how they approached this most unusual project.

How was this assignment different from a typical curation assignment? Was it more difficult?

SG: I actually thought this would be a breeze. I mean, I love music and I hike a lot. Makes sense. I had a few tracks I knew I had to include, but once I sat down to put it all together, I got stuck. Most curation assignments revolve around a pretty defined theme and audience. This one allowed me too much freedom, so I started obsessing over who exactly I was making these for. Anyone can be a hiker, after all, so what vibe do I want to create? Do I pick obvious tracks? Do people want to hear what they know or do they want to be surprised? Ultimately, I want others to enjoy these playlists as much as I do.

How did you tie your consideration of the setting, and the listener, into the tracks you suggested?

AS: I first imagined the trail I was selecting music for—the way it smells, how it's shaped, how it feels, and how the sun pierces the redwood canopies and hits the trail. I feel like every time I go hiking, I'm looking not only to get some exercise, but also, especially, to be inspired by what nature has to offer in that setting. It felt safe to assume the listener would share that outlook. So the music has to fit into that framework: Something that's going to inspire you to keep going 'til the end, but also to keep opening your mind in different ways from start to finish.

What was your decision-making process around the structure of the playlists?

SG: The ordering of a playlist is as important as the tracks themselves. I want the songs to almost bleed into each other, even if their sound is completely different. There’s no science to it, it’s just about feel. Of course, the first track is everything—that’s your thesis. I picked Caribou’s “Sun” to kick off Songs for Conquering a Difficult Hike, for example. I love the movement of that track. It’s bright and playful and makes you feel like you can conquer the world.

JF: I stuck to a basic wave pattern: a couple songs to increase energy followed by a couple that plateau out, then a couple that let that energy draw down a bit. It’s subtle—modulations. I tend to do the same thing with genre and artist popularity. If I place somewhat obscure experimental folk songs back-to-back, I follow them up with something a little more identifiable. Of course, if you find two songs that feel meant to be played one after another, you have to go for it. I’d zoom out, too: on Shadowy Songs for Tall Tree Canopies, for example, I placed Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” an invocation track, at the beginning, and at the end I added Magical Power Mako’s “Sound, Mother Earth,” which was meant to draw the invocation to a close. I was thinking of the hike as a kind of ritual, and that this would be the ceremonial music for it.

Beats, Rhymes and Phife: A Data-Driven Look at a Tribe Called Quest

This post was originally published on April 1, 2016, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

The following post and accompanying graphics are based on data provided by our good friends at WhoSampled, which manages the largest repository of user-generated sample data on the web. Download a hi-res version here and here. Graphic design by Studio Wyse. Illustrations by LeeAndra Cianci.

Consensus has it that the musical touchstone of my generation—the single point in our cultural history that every obsessive remembers—came when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up on mainstream radio. It’s a JFK moment; many of us can recall where we were the exact second we heard those big, clanky chords. From there, our eyes were opened and the world expanded.

But, in the end, that was more of a black hole. Kurt shot himself, and rock began to eat itself, iterating through various stages of post-grunge, retro rockabilly, rock-rap and other sounds until it became a parody of itself, a fount of boardroom nihilism and artistic inertia. These days, instead of Nirvana, I prefer to remember the first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” I was in a friend’s bedroom in Charlotte, NC. It was around midnight and a bit before my 14th birthday. We were reading Batman comics and dreaming of Gotham, or, really, anywhere other than the staid homesteads of suburban North Carolina.

As music nerds, we’d already digested the Velvet Underground and De La Soul, so we instantly got Tribe’s vibes and references, but blending these two opposing worlds—despondent, glamorous sleaze rock and idiosyncratic, jazz afrocentrism—was a revelation. And their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was all about connecting the cultural dots. They created universes by cobbling together post-bop saxophones, rolling bass lines, and hard boom bap beats, topping them off with Q-Tip’s fluid freeform rhymes that played an alto sax to the gruff, declarative blurts of Phife’s deceptively straightforward lyrics. 

Main Graphic with Animated Characters

That basic formula was there from the beginning, but it changed over time, and this evolution opened up hip-hop, changing its sound and its listeners forever. On their 1990 debut, jazz comprised nearly 20% of all samples. Compare this to 3% for hip-hop overall for that same year. As where other producers were sampling soul (50%) or other hip-hop songs (28%), Tribe was drawing from Cannonball Adderley (“Footprints” and “Bonita Applebum”), Lou Donaldson (“If the Papes Come”) and Weather Report (“Mr. Muhamad”).

Many people will put them in the context of fellow Native Tongue groups such as De La Soul, but that’s not entirely fair; on the quintessential album De La Soul is Dead, that group only used jazz 4% of the time—the majority of their samples came from soul (39%), hip-hop (31%), and rock (15%).

On “Rhythm (The Art of Moving Butts)” from Tribe’s sophomore album, The Low End Theory, Q-Tip raps, “Not selling out, that’s a negative, love hip-hop, love heritage.” It’s one of those value statements that resounds with the young—absolutist, purist, and strong. But it’s also fundamentally conservative, and, between 1991 and 1993 (the year they released Midnight Marauders), Tribe were anything but. Pivoting off the ideas that they laid down on their debut, they created an aesthetic that blended this heritage (which, for Tribe, was jazz) with the more wizened and grimy hip-hop sounds of the time for something that sounded amazingly current and completely singular.

For Low End Theory, jazz comprised 29% of all samples; for Midnight Marauders, that number was 31%. The types of jazz they sampled also changed. While they still leaned on greats such as Eric Dolphy (“Sky Pager” ) and Art Blakely (“Excursions”), they were also pulling from Latin jazz of Cal Tjader (“Midnight Marauders Express”) and the soul-jazz of Brother Jack McDuff (“Scenario”).

But, more so than just the music, there was another big change: the emergence of Phife. As we show in the graphic above, he only accounted for 10% of all verses on their debut (with Q-Tip delivering most of the rest). That number grew to 26% for Low End Theory and 39% for Midnight Marauders. The story goes that Phife was diagnosed with diabetes during the recording of Low End Theory, and, getting a glimpse of his own mortality, was determined to build out a legacy. He pushed Tip to both let him be a larger part of the group and for both of them to refocus their efforts. Tip wisely agreed.

Much has been made of Phife’s conversational flow and everyman persona, and the balance they brought to Tip’s more “abstract” style cannot be understated, but he also brought in both a playfulness and a set of references that allowed the group to create a more fully formed worldview. One way to look at this is the various allusions that they made to other musicians, obscure cartoons, Blaxploitation icons, various product pitchmen, DJs, and basketball players. For a kid in North Carolina in the ‘90s, this served as a hip-hop Tumblr, collecting an entire universe that was both familiar and alien.

On their debut, they referenced a total of five athletes, musicians, and movie/TV personalities. On Low End Theory, that number had grown to 70, and, by Midnight Marauders, it hit a peak at 86. Phife pushed them in this direction, but Tip certainly played along. On “Check The Rhime,” Phife drops a reference to the Energizer Bunny while Tip conjures Mr. Clean. They were different dudes, and their references reflect that (Tip drops an allusion to revolutionary black choreographer Alvin Ailey, while Phife brings up the Power Rangers), but it all worked together.

Over the years, this would change. On their lukewarm 1998 album Love Movement, Phife only had 22% of all verses, jazz had receded to 25% of all samples, and the river of cultural references had dried up to a trickle. But, for a few years, there was no group that did it better, and that sound became the template for everything from ‘90s headwrap rap and neo-soul to the smoothed out melodies of The Neptunes’ middle period. Eventually, this sound was so ingrained into our musical landscape that it became a cliché. But, in 1990, hearing it for the first time, it sounded like something wholly new and revolutionary. In the subsequent years, many of us have gone searching for that sensation elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. But in 1990, sitting on my friend’s bed and leafing through DC comics, it was unmistakable. We may have lost Phife, but those moments will be with us forever.

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Stay Woke: Erykah Badu’s Best

This post was originally published on August 31, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

Not to take anything away from Ms. Lauryn Hill—Miseducation is fearless, timeless, etc.—but seeing her in Berkeley reminded me that she essentially only has three albums of material (and that’s being generous). As much as we all love “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Nothing Even Matters,” and “Everything Is Everything,” she’s a bit fossilized, and her performances, no matter how vibrant, are exercises in nostalgia.

Watching her, my mind began to cycle through artists from that era who haven’t succumbed to self-parody, grown creatively stagnant, disappeared for long stretches, or turned their attention to weird sex cults. It’s a short list, and Erykah Badu is near the top. Badu may have peaked commercially in the late ‘90s, but her releases since 2008 (New Amerykah Part One and Part Two and But You Caint Use My Phone) have been more restless, expansive, and experimental than anything she did in the first half of her career.

New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is arguably the most important album of the 2000s. A woozy, psychedelic, politically prickly, endlessly esoteric album, it ultimately reaffirms the self in face of crippling oppression. Badu’s masterwork remains a singular artifact of the Dubya years, and serves as a precursor to everything from To Pimp a Butterfly to A Seat At The Table. Think you’re woke? Badu (along with underrated soul singer Georgia Anne Muldrow) popularized the term on “Master Teacher.”

But You Caint Use My Phone is similarly mercurial. Putting aside the fact that it’s a mixtape framed as a radio show that feels like a playlist—yeah, all of our definitions for collections of songs are blurred now—it skitters between pointed political commentary, melancholy slow jams, ham-fisted stand-up comedy, and rambling sound sketches—often within the same song.

Check out “Cel U Lar Device,” her remake of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” that skirts the line between homage and satire, and throws the original’s Caribbean rhythms against her own stilted Kraftwerkian vocals for a cheeky takedown of cell-phone culture. Later in the album, she’ll trot out a Drake impersonator to kick a few bars. It’s all unbelievably awesome, and probably better than anything the 6 God has ever made.

Of course, her first three albums—1997’s Baduziam, 2000’s Mama’s Gun, and 2003’s Worldwide Underground—are classics of their period. If you know anyone between the ages of 15 and 20, there’s about a 32 percent chance that Badu played some part in their conception.

But more than just baby-making machines, tracks such as “On & On,” “Didn’t Cha Know,” and “Next Lifetime” redefined R&B, updating Philly and Memphis soul for a new generation, and songs such as “A.D. 2000” (off Mama’s Gun) foreshadow the Alpha Centauri agitprop of her later work. She brought the vibes back to the genre, but, unlike some of her soul contemporaries, Erykah also had songs to cut through the nag champa fragrance. As always, she was in her own lane.

Wu-Tang Forever, Fixed

This post was originally published on June 9, 2017 on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

Freed from historical context, Wu-Tang Clan’s 1997 sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, is one of the best albums of that or any year. It contains some of the strongest verses from legendary emcees Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Method Man. The production gushes a cagey, synth-fueled dread, with (frustratingly brief) excursions into the Wu’s signature minor chord hip-hop minimalism for a sonic palette that absorbs all the claustrophobia and chaos of urban life in the mid-90s. There’s also an epic grandeur to it: This didnt sound like eight guys sitting in their basement, playing chess, smoking dust, and plotting a global takeover. Wu-Tang Forever sounds like the victory parade, exuding the scope and swagger of gods roaming the earth, surveying the spoils of a bloody but decisive victory. And though there was some grumbling from critics and old heads, audiences responded.

Wu-Tang Forever went to No. 1 in both the U.K. and U.S., drew widespread critical acclaim and further launched Wu-Tang to the upper echelons of pop-cultural ubiquity. This was the culmination of leader RZA’s famed five-year plan, which outlined how a group of rough-and-tumble NYC CMS with little traditional pop appeal would essentially take over the music world.Still, despite all of this, Wu-Tang Forever has always had its detractors. In fact, most Wu fans consider it to be the group’s first major misstep. Some of the blame for this can be laid at the RZA’s feet, while other reasons were beyond his control.

By 1997, hip-hop had changed dramatically. The golden era (whichever period you call that) had long since ended, and the jazzy, rugged beats that defined NYC hip-hop in the early to mid-90s were no longer fashionable. This coincided with RZA’s Staten Island basement studio flooding, which also forced the Abbott to move to a more digital and less sample-based sound. Wu-Tang Forever also lacked the chemistry and intertextuality of the original Wu releases. The group’s MCs were becoming more confident in their skills, and they stopped seeing themselves as pawns (or even knights) in a larger chess game being orchestrated by the RZA. They were also, it should be noted, battling various court cases, legal proceedings, intrasquad beefs, and personal issues.

All this meant that Wu-Tang Forever sounded drastically different than its predecessors. It was more commercial and polished, and largely lacked the griminess and insularity of Wu’s output during their “classic” period. But, still, this is a extremely talented group of rappers and producers, and there are flashes of brilliance. Over the past 20 years, the group’s rabid fan base have engaged in a parlor game of sorts to tease out those streaks of genius, while trimming the unwanted bloat. This is our entry, and we’ve cut the album down to 11 lean, mean classic cuts.


The first on the chopping block is the lead-off “track,” “Wu-Revolution.” This six-minute, meandering, morally confused, self-congratulatory piece encapsulates the album’s rambling sprawl. It didn’t help that this was also the first track on the album, and it set a horrible precedent. It was an easy call to drop. Tracks like “For Heavens Sake” were harder choices. This song is fine; the warped vocal sample is classic RZA and the detuned keys at the end of the chorus gives the track a velocity. On most albums, this would be a stand-out, but here it gets a little lost. The same with “Cash Still Rules/ Scary Hours (Still Don’t Nothing Move But the Money).” Aside from the fact that it has three titles jammed into one, this would be an awesome single from a middle-period Raekwon album. But as the sequel to one of the Wu’s most beloved songs, it disappoints. The loop at the center of the track doesn’t go anywhere, an Method sounds a little bit lazy.


“Hellz Wind Staff” is classic Wu: grimey, kung-fu whiplash beats, with the world’s best MCs trading lines. It’s a vibe that is carried through to “The M.G.M.,” which sounds like a banger from Wu’s golden era. The beat is dusty, the vibe violent, and the verses from Ghost and Rae are pure fire. “The City” survives based on the intro alone. Violent menace meets ghetto vérité, which nicely kicks off classic verses from Inspectah Deck. The song has problems—the chorus stumbles, and it could’ve used a verse from GZA—but it’s still classic Wu. Ominous, angry, and esoteric, with a haunting soul sample at its core, “Impossible” is flawless, and arguably the strongest track on the album—though “Triumph” has always been the default choice for that distinction. Both tracks are tough-as-nails.When stitched together, these tracks probably still don’t quite rise to the level of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But this playlist still constitutes the best hip-hop album of 1997—and most years thereafter.

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