Photo by Jonathan Weiner.

“Witty Unpredictable Talented And Natural Game” is the acronym GZA describes Wu-Tang Clan. Indeed, Wu-Tang Clan is one ultimate (if not THE ultimate) Hip-Hop group who has defined an era. A group who revived the East Coast as a serious force in the genre and created a life of its own. However, the group members have their own solo work that are as important as the work they make together. These are the five essential solo albums that showcases the best of some of their most popular members.

1. Raekwon – “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” (1995)

Album Artwork courtesy of Loud Records

Probably the most popular and most revered of all the Wu-Tang Solo projects. The impact that “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” left on Hip-Hop is easy to trace. The album was responsible for popularizing Mafioso Rap; a genre of Hip-Hop that contains references to the Mafia and organized crime.

Not too long after the release of this album, many East Coast rappers would follow suit to this subgenre. Nas with “It Was Written” (1996), The Notorious B.I.G. with “Life After Death” (1997) and Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” (1996).

The major thing you will see in this album is the prominent feature of Ghostface Killah. Him and Raekwon have a brilliant chemistry with their ability to tell captivating stories in contrasting tones. Ghostface being very animated while Raekwon being very calm and collected with a presence akin to a mob boss.

“Ghost and me, especially at the time, had this identical-twin effect on each other.” Raekwon said. “We would joke about the same things and laugh at the same shit. We were into the same clothes and shit. We were like the EPMD of the crew.”

The opening skit “Striving for Perfection” sets up the themes for the album. Raekwon and Ghostface conversing about committing one last great heist in the criminal underworld before retiring for good to raise their respective families.

Then we get taken to “Knuckleheadz” where the two establish themselves as powerhouses of the underworld. They’ve been through it all. They have the experience. They know what to do when it comes to committing a crime. The production is filled with life with relaxed and focused drum beats.

Throughout “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…,” you will samples from organized crime films such as “The Mack” (1973), “Scarface” (1983), “The Killer” (1989) and “Carlito’s Way” (1993). Very fitting for the topics that are presented on the album.

“Criminology” for example, starts off with a scene from “Scarface” in which protagonist Tony Montana angrily responds to Alex Sosa, threatening him that he will “go to war” against him. This leads right into the track where we see Ghostface and Raekwon showing what they can do if someone tries to mess with them. “You try to flee but you got smoked up by the doorway. No question, I send your ass back. Right to the essence. Your whole frame is smothered in dirt, now how you resting?”

I like to mention the intermission skit “Shark Niggas (Biters).” This is a skit that shows Ghostface sending a message that all rappers have to be original and should not copy off of other people. Especially after seeing Biggie Smalls trying to imitate Nas with his album cover (both album covers feature a little kid). It’s ironic to listen to this skit as a year later many rappers attempted to emulate this album.

“Verbal Intercourse” is a favorite of mine’s as it features a brilliant guest appearance from Nas whom many would argue had the best verse on the track. His verse features him depicted as a prophet who has a message for the people to live a lifestyle that is “unpredictable” and it breaks out of the cycle of the violence in the streets.

“Ice Cream” is probably the most famous track on the album. Method Man appears with his ability to pull out great hooks. “Watch these rap niggas get all up in your guts. French-vanilla, butter-pecan, chocolate-deluxe. Even caramel sundaes is getting touched. And scooped in my ice cream truck, who tears it up.” The reference to ice cream flavors is used as a metaphor to a women’s skin color.

Ghostface and Raekwon describe the kind of women they like in terms of looks and attitude. It’s the excesses and debauchery that comes when you’re a highly successful mobster. In the words of Montana, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”

Easily the first one in this list to listen to. The production is relaxed and memorable. The storytelling from Raekwon and Ghostface is cinematic that will leave you in awe and disgust. And that’s why this is one of greatest Hip-Hop albums ever.

Track Picks: “Knuckleheadz,” “Criminology,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Guillotine (Swords),” “Can It Be All So Simple (Remix),” “Verbal Intercourse,” “Ice Cream” and “Wu-Gambinos”

Labels: Loud Records

2. GZA – “Liquid Swords” (1995)

Album Artwork courtesy of Geffen Records

Undoubtingly my favorite from this list from my favorite Wu-Tang member. GZA the Genius comes out with probably the darkest project that sees the horrors of life inside the projects. The production gives me an eerie detachment as if I’m venturing through the streets during a brutal winter night.

What makes GZA my favorite member in Wu is his will to venture to dark and surreal topics at hand. RZA describes him as the one who attract the thinking man. For that I must agree, GZA’s lyricism leaves you contemplating of the world around you. According to GZA, “Liquid Swords is a concept of being lyrically sharp, flowing like liquid metal.”

The album prominently features samples of the film “Shogun Assassin,” a film about highly regarded samurai. The samples are used to make a metaphor towards the lyricism from GZA.

“I Gotcha Back” provides a horrific description of young kids getting involve in local drug trades and gang violence in their area. The reaction among the elders, the consequences of getting involved and the thoughts and wishes of GZA wanting to get away from it. “It’s so hard to escape the gunfire. I wish could rule it out like an umpire.”

GZA also asks, “What is the meaning of C.R.I.M.E.? Is it Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime?” A rhetorical question if only the innocent being attacked is crime. What about the gang members attacking each other? Is that not a crime itself?

“4th Chamber” provides this distorted and eerie guitar riff along with amazing guest features from Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and RZA. Ghostface’s verse features him questioning the world around him. “Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to Romans while Jesus slept?”

Meanwhile RZA features him being in conflict with the government over the fact he was trying to show the world of the concealment of the horrific imperialism on Africa from the past. “A hit was sent from the President to raid your residence. Because you had secret evidence and documents. On how they raped the continents and lynched the prominent. Dominant Islamic, Asiatic black Hebrew.”

“Shadowboxin’” is easily the most accessible track as it provides a catchy sample of Ann Peebles’ “Trouble, Heartaches & Sadness,” bass-heavy beats and a great duo rapping from GZA and Method Man.

This is probably one of Method Man’s most brutal appearance. He sounds like he was really pissed to be here and he shows every bit of his emotion with confidence. In fact, he would have two verses while GZA would only have one. While GZA had a great verse, I feel like he let Method Man take the show with this track knowing his capabilities.

If you’re a more of a lyrical person when it comes to Hip-Hop, “Liquid Swords” should be the one to listen to. This album is highly regarded for the lyricism and showcases why GZA was highly regarded by not only the Hip-Hop community, but among fellow Wu-Tang members. To quote Method Man, “We form like Voltron and GZA happens to be the head.”

Track Picks: “Liquid Swords,” “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Cold World,” “Labels,” “4th Chamber,” “Shadowboxin’” and “I Gotcha Back”

Label: Geffen Records

3. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version” (1995)

Album Artwork courtesy of Elektra Records

From Hip-Hop’s craziest character, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) comes out an album that remains true to his personality and his ability. His ability to sing off-key with a very odd (and enjoyable) sense of humor.

The opening skit of this album goes on for about five minutes, which is very unusual for many Hip-Hop (generally about a minute or two long). Here we see ODB talking about how he missed this one girl whom he only knew for about ten minutes. He talked about how much he fun sleeping with even though she had gonorrhea and he killed her.

It’s an extremely weird to listen to and if you’re hearing this for the first time, you’re just hoping ODB was making it all up. He does say so at the end, but the taking into account of having multiple children and him spending time in jail it’s hard to believe whether the stuff he says is true or not.

The album really kicks off with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” where ODB comes out roaring, “Ooh, baby, I like it raw. Yeah, baby, I like it raw.” The track only has one verse that’s comprehensible while the other one is being played in reverse which adds to madness inside of ODB. Everytime I hear this track I’m always amazed on how possessed he sounds when he raps on this track.

Ah “Brooklyn Zoo,” one of ODB’s finest moments. A braggicious rap that is filled with hilarious lines, “This type of pain, you couldn’t even kill with Midol. Fuck around get sprayed with Lysol. In your face like a can of mace, baby. Is it burnin? Well fuck it, now you’re learnin.”

The piano sampled from Bobby Ellis and The Desmond Miles Seven’s “Step Softly” gives the track a special charm. It sounds so upbeat and contrasting with ODB’s flow that makes it one of the greatest Hip-Hop songs ever.

“Raw Hide” is one ODB’s craziest performances. He’s literally pressing the mic against the mic and shouting on the top of his lungs screaming that he’s been on welfare ever since he was born and he wants to see blood.

Method Man and Raekwon appear and provide a calm inside the madness of ODB. Method Man with his catchy hooks and Raekwon’s collected manner.

“Damage” sees GZA appear as a sort adlib towards ODB’s verses. A surprising moment as GZA would usually have his own verse. However, this track shows how brilliant these two work together and how they have such a yin-yang dynamic with GZA being all philosophical and refined and the chaotic nature inside of ODB. Or because the fact they’re cousins…

The album has its weird moments. In the middle of “Don’t U Know” ODB talks about the fact he likes the girls who are very nasty. “Goin Down” sees him doing the longest and loudest “Ahhh” that he’s ever done that could have blown his vocal cords. And “Drunk Game” you get to hear him have an orgasm.

ODB shows how nuts he is all the way with no shame, and we love him for that. If you’re going listen this, be aware of what I’ve said because this can really put off someone on first listen. But it’s rewarding to listen to because of his attempt to create the craziest character possible in Hip-Hop.

Track Picks: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Brooklyn Zoo,” “Hippa to Da Hoppa,” “Raw Hide,” “Damage” and “Snakes”

Label: Elektra Records

4. Ghostface Killah – “Ironman” (1996)

Album Artwork courtesy of Epic Records

The one who is considered to have the most consistent discography; coming to pick a Ghostface Killah album for this list was a very difficult task. In fact, this is probably a testament to why Ghostface is considered one of the best. His distinctive voice that is very diverse in his range of topics. You might have a good idea if you listen to “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” and his verses on tracks like “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”

I end up choosing “Ironman” to make it to this list, because I find this to be a good companion album to “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” where Ghostface was prominent guest. With “Ironman,” the roles are reversed with Raekwon (as well as future member Cappadonna) being a major guest on the album.

Opener “Iron Maiden” starts up with dialogue from the film “The Education of Sonny Carson” showing the gangster aesthetics like “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” but with much cleaner and smooth production. The instrumentals don’t feel as rough as that album as I feel I am being transported to New York during the spring or summer.

“Faster Blade” is a Raekwon-only track where he freestyles of full braggadocio. Something I find very interesting because it’s only Raekwon and no signs of Ghostface Killah even though its his album. This won’t be only time Ghostface won’t appear on a track.

“Assassination Day” is another track that doesn’t feature Ghostface. We have Inspectah Deck, RZA, Raekwon and Masta Killa talk about their ways of completing an assassination (obviously). I really love the guitar riff as it gives off the stealth atmosphere when it comes to assassinating someone.

A favorite of mine’s is “Daytona 500,” a fast paced track featuring some of Ghostface’s craziest rhymes delivered at a intense, rapid pace. He makes it look easy when he raps, which gives Cappadonna some difficulty to match that intensity.

Undoubtingly the best track on this album is the ballad “All That I Got Is You.” A heartfelt track that sees Ghostface showing his love and appreciation for his mother from the struggles growing up. “But I remember this, moms would lick her finger tips. To wipe the cold out my eye before school with her spit. Case worker had her runnin’ back to face to face.”

If you really enjoy Ghostface’s appearance “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” definitely look this up if you want to see be the star. Even though he doesn’t appear on every single track and there’s the guest appearance of Raekwon and Cappadonna. It’s still an essential listen to see another member who also masterful in storytelling.

Track Picks: “Iron Maiden,” “Faster Blade,” “260,” “Assassination Day,” “Winter Warz,” “Daytona 500” and “All That I Got Is You”

Label: Epic Records

5. Method Man – “Tical” (1994)

Album Artwork courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

Last but not least, we get to the very first Wu-Tang solo album. The most popular member, Method Man has a very recognizable voice no thanks to his deep, smooth voice and his ability to create great hooks.

His roles in the hit singles; “Method Man” and “C.R.E.A.M.” (from the debut album “Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers”) made him the most recognizable member which prompted him to have his solo album released first.

In many ways, I find that the production on “Tical” is a precursor towards “Liquid Swords.” I get an eerie feeling when listening to this album, that same feeling of going through the streets of New York on a cold, winter night. The difference is “Tical” makes me feel like I’m going through these streets while tripping. It’s quite unsurprising as some of the most notable topics from Method Man such as smoking pot and life in the projects.

“Sub Crazy” backs up my point. They contain really dense instrumentals. The bass is heavy, there’s echoing scratching sounds, and his flow’s sounds like it could be an influence to someone like Danny Brown.

“Bring the Pain” was the hit single from the album. It’s a track that shows Method Man’s rhyming scheme at its best. “Came to represent and carve my name in your chest. You can come test, realize you’re no contest. Son, I’m the gun that won that old Wild West. Quick on the draw with my hands on the four-nine-three-eleven with the rugged rhymes galore.”

“All I Need” is a love song that’s is contrasted by this gritty beat and a sinister synthesizer that could have fit in a video game. This track also received a lot of attention for the fact the lyrics are very different from many of the supposedly misogynistic lyrics in Hip-Hop at the time.

Another favorite of mine “Meth vs. Chef” a rap battle between Method Man and Raekwon. This is a really cool moment as we get to see two Wu members have a go at each other. Both had great verses, but I think that Raekwon go the upper hand with this one.

The only major problem I have with this record is the fact that the all of the albums since “Tical” have gone on to be more refined and better than this one. “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” has the cinematic side, “Liquid Swords” bring a thought-provoking topic, and “Return to the 36 Chambers” has a comedic aspect. Many of them have left a big mark in the history of Hip-Hop. I certainly don’t come back to one more often than the others.

Sure, this is not the best one compared to the other in this list, but I find this to be essential as this was the spark that lead to Method Man’s success and more Wu-Tang solo efforts in the future.

Track Picks: “Bring the Pain,” “All I Need,” “Meth vs Chef,” “Sub Crazy,” “Mr. Sandman” and “Method Man (Remix)”

Label: Def Jam Recordings