The wild and unstable madness of Ol Dirty Bastard

The wild and unstable madness of Ol Dirty Bastard

“Return to the 36 Chambers”, the abandonment of conventional singing and rapping techniques

Elektra / WMG , 1995

The strange and wacky man of the Wu

If there is an unlikely personality that stood out in the Wu-Tang Clan, it is without a doubt Ol Dirty Bastard. Each member had his own personality, his own character, and that’s what makes the Wu-Tang Clan unique. And that’s why, after having created the surprise with Enter The Wu-Tang in 1993, the group started a series of solo albums for each of its notable members with RZA as producer and artistic director. The Wu-Tang is at this time untouchable, street but with a unique universe focused on martial arts and Asian culture. They created a real empire in the middle of the 90’s and imposed themselves as an essential group while remaining authentic. A remarkable tour de force.  

That Method Man comes first in this wave of solo albums makes sense, he was the one with the most aura, the most charisma, one of the best flow, and also one of the most fan-favorite member, while having a degree of craziness and spontaneity.

That Ol Dirty Bastard comes in second is already much more surprising. Among the key members of the Wu, he is probably the least marketable and bankable. If he undeniably surpasses Method Man in madness and spontaneity, he doesn’t have his charisma and flow. He also doesn’t have the pen and the diction of a Ghostface, GZA or Raekwon. If he brings a lot in a group album, are we able to listen to him on a whole album? What does he have to offer? What can justify that he comes second in this wave of solo? Where is his talent hidden?

An unstable rapped/sung flow intermingled with grumbling

The answer is simple: in his madness. Ol Dirty Bastard is a strange and unique energetic, a style like we never saw before. If he can be close to a Redman, the comparison does not really hold, he is much less structured, with a less devastating flow. Ol Dirty Bastard doesn’t really rap, but he doesn’t really sing either. A hybrid between the two? Again, not really. It’s just indescribable, something wild. He just trusts his instincts, he raps as he pleases, and most of the time, you can barely understand what he’s saying. It’s a mess.

Even lyrically, he’s far from having a fine style and polished writing. I even suspect that there is some improvisation in his songs. However, he has something unique, something only he is able to do. Simply because it is his personality, his madness is not played, it is not overdone, it is natural. With his alcoholic and unstable flow and his hoarse voice, he adds grumblings, mumblings, lispings, but nevertheless we follow him in his delirium, he is bewitching. With his completely wacky and twisted lyrics, he is ultimately as funny as he is scary, or even disturbing.

When we described Ol Dirty Bastard and his style, we described a big part of the album. With Return to The 36 Chambers, we’re in for an hour of ODB-style madness, so be prepared. Ready for it? Let’s go.

A tailor-made production in the Wu raw style

While the star of the album is undeniably ODB, RZA’s production is finally as raw as ever. It’s amazing how RZA was able to adapt to all the MCs of the group. RZA manages in part to channel and structure the madness of ODB. If he accompanies it slightly with slightly amazing beats or impromptu mood swings, the rustic Wu vibe is still pervasive. RZA’s production work, even if he leaves the hand to his Wu-Tang Killa Beez compatriots on some tracks, is remarkable with overall dark rhythms accompanied by mystical strings and keyboards. 

From the opening lines of Shimmy Shimmy Ya, ODB lets us know he likes to keep it raw with ragged, unsteady vocal diction before he takes off with his vocalizations. The few urgent piano notes of RZA contrast the vocal instability of the rapper. Baby C’mon will start in this dramatic urgency before calming the game with a bass riff in the middle of the song, the beat easily accompanies the madness of the character.

Brooklyn Zoo seduces with a guitar chord where ODB presents perhaps one of the most structured and conventional flows of the album, apart from the guests. Tracks like Hippa to da Hoppa or The Stomp will, like the previous one, be among the more conventional and accessible tracks, with the more traditional Wu-Tang universe and raw beats. The first one works with a typical string chord of the group while the second one resonates with its muffled percussion where ODB gives off an incredible energy.

A messy madness in all its splendor

If you want to see ODB’s madness in all its glory, you have to head towards the half of the album. Don’t U Know presents a completely unstable and messy rapping/singing. Goin Down starts with a kind of hysterical vocalization before RZA’s raw beat tries to channel it as well as possible but his diction remains always scary and psychotic. Unsurprisingly, Drunk Game features a smooth and melodic beat where Ol Dirty Bastard tries his hand at singing mixed with screams in the background with a fake love story, there is a hint of irony as he is probably talking about getting high with a metaphor about the bottle.

Fortunately, we have some alternatives to the unbridled madness of ODB with the numerous guests. If Raw Hide starts with a delirious singing of the rapper, the flows of Method Man and Raekwon come to calm down the game, although Method brings his little dose of madness too with his chorus. Brooklyn Zoo 2 is a joyful mess with incessant beat changes. The disturbing guitar riff of Proteck Ya Neck II The Zoo supports the raging ego-trips of the eight emcees present on the track. Snakes on the other hand is easily reminiscent of Enter The Wu-Tang with its kung-fu movie excerpts in the introduction.

Return to The 36 Chambers could not have been made by another rapper, and hardly by another producer than RZA. If it works so well, it’s only thanks to the excessive madness of ODB. It’s not the first time that madness hits Hip Hop, Kokane did it with Funk Upon A Rhyme, Kool Keith with the Ultramagnetic MCs, but it’s the first time that it takes this form with an emceeing without any structure and coherence, but finally full of spontaneity and energy. It will probably put off a part of its audience at the first listening, but it is nevertheless an excellent album with a unique style. This album is an experience not to be missed, and even if you can’t remember the meaning of the word music by the end of the album, it’s worth the trip. Maybe not the best of the Wu’s solos, but undeniably the most original and absurd. The soul of Wu-Tang is not the same without Ol Dirty Bastard (RIP).

By Grégoire Zasa

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