March 29, 2018 U-God – Venom (Album Review)
The deep distinct voice of U-God was not included on The Saga Continues, the album released last fall under the generic moniker Wu-Tang. This slight change in attribution was a direct result of his absence on the record; Producer Mathematics told Exclaim! magazine at the time, “It can’t be a complete Wu-Tang Clan album without UG.” This shaky membership was rooted partially in U-God making the bold move to sue the collective, specifically RZA, seeking proper share of royalties and merchandise sales, including a portion of the $2,000,000 paid by since-disgraced “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli to land the rare lone copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
The business half of the Wu notwithstanding, U-God has appeared live with the group as recently as last year, and a new release would not be a true solo album by a Wu-Tang Clan member if it did not include appearances by at least half of the collected roster. That in mind, U-God is back with his fifth album, Venom, his first solo album since The Keynote Speaker in 2013. Set for release on Friday, March 30, 2018 via Babygrande Records, and teased as far back as December 2016, Venom was slated for release at some point in 2017 before being pushed back to this year, meant to follow the release of Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang, which hit bookstores in hardcover a few weeks earlier on March 6th.
A total of 12 new cuts, a quick track-titled “Exordium” hits the ground running for anyone doubting the return of U-God: “please take a seat and enjoy the presentation / came outta hibernation to present my new creation / hate’s the motivation amongst the competition / fangs out, salivatin’, blast you with VENOM!” This theme rolls over into “Unstoppable;” a tight drum beat sits below as U-God makes his point that he may choose his moments to appear, but he makes those appearances count. The chorus is a little aloof, distant, and draws away from the strength of the track.
Tight eerie beats keep “Epicenter” moving as the first Wu members (two officially, another practically) make their appearance in the form of Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and Scotty Wotty. The title serves as a reminder about the group’s place in the Hip Hop universe, and U-God in particular; the point is made again that while his contributions may be thinly scattered compared to his contemporaries, everyone stops to listen when he rhymes. This is echoed later in “Climate,” the most impactful track where U-God appears legitimately solo.
“Bit Da Dust” makes a thinly veiled reference to the disposability of those Hip Hop talents who “[don’t] play by the rules” and stretch themselves too far outside the accepted limits for the genre, both within the community and by the short-sighted commercial world. The subtle beat below sets the tone that the best tracks here, like most Wu-Tang work, is full of smooth production and catchy hooks in service to, rather than instead of, wordplay and memorable lyrics.
Thereafter, the title-track, “Venom,” swoops as a terse testament to loyalty amongst family in friends; “yeah we got issues with each other” but the fierce loyalty is something that never fades away. “Felon” is perhaps an autobiographical tale; as he told the New York Times recently, his earlier arrest record will always follow U-God around: “I’ll be always a convict, no matter how successful I am,” and this track serves as a lyrical reminder.
Moving along smoothly, “Legacy” cements the effect U-God has on the genre, and the world: “rhymes for a hundred years / this here’s my legacy… words assault your ears / after I’m gone, these words’ll be my legacy.“ The theme continues on “Whole World Watchin’,” where hypnotic crowd noise introduces the emcee, who seems less than phased at the attention of the spotlight; in fact, he craves it: “I don’t do this often/ ’cause in public I’m cautious/ you can’t fuck with my money / the world is my office.”
Shifting themes, jealous girlfriends (ex- or otherwise) form the basis for “XXX.” Here, Method Man makes another appearance, but the glut of the words are handled by U-God himself, lamenting the damned if you do/don’t aspect of toxic relationships, especially those that end poorly.
U-God steps aside on “Jackpot” in favor of Scotty Wotty; the title is a reference to an earlier street name used by Scott and the lyrics are semi-autobiographical, outlining the tribulations that have kept him away from larger success, Wu or otherwise. Finally, the album closes with the chilling “Wisdom,” which opens with an answering machine message, presumably from U-God’s mother, trying to find middle ground between withholding judgment about her son’s career and success, at the price of also withholding praise and assistance: “Look ma, I’m on top of the world!” The track descends back into her voice before abruptly cutting out entirely.
A very strong effort, Venom is full of dense lyrics delivered with the strong, steady voice of U-God and laid on top of rhythms and beats that never overpower the vocals and themes within. Five years may be a long time between releases, especially with the slight delays of the past year and a half, but Venom was worth the wait and will continue to hold the standard U-God has set for the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan and Hip Hop as a whole. That is why Cryptic Rock gives Venom 4 out of 5 stars.