Ever since mixtapes became a prominent fixture in hip-hop in the late-90s, artists and labels have tried various methods to make the release of albums feel more momentous. There have been special editions with extra songs, collector editions and even multiple covers like with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Nothing however comes close to how the Wu-Tang Clan is planning to distribute their forthcoming album, The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin (not to be mistaken for the Clan’s forthcoming A Better Tomorrow).
In an exclusive interview with Forbes, RZA gloats, “We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before. We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” Forbes goes on to report that the album will be treated like notable impressionist paintings and put on exhibit all around the world at “museums, galleries, festivals and the like.”
According to a manifesto on the album’s official website, “History demonstrates that great musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are held in the same high esteem as figures like Picasso, Michelangelo and Van Gogh. However, the creative output of today’s artists such as The RZA, Kanye West or Dr. Dre, is not valued equally to that of artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst or Jean-Michel Basquia.”
In order to prevent any unauthorized duplication of the CD it shall be kept in an ornate box emblazoned with the famous W. Security is also assured to be heavy, all patrons will be thoroughly searched for any recording devices. Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a Morrocan-based producer who is a Wu-Tang affiliate and one of the album’s chief producers says the extensive security measures are necessary because “one leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.”
However, what exactly is this concept? In the aforementioned Forbes article RZA states, “the idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years. And yet it doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.” This statement is troubling for two reasons. First, RZA makes the assumption that appreciation of art is directly tied to the price tag. So, free albums and free mixtapes that artists release for promotional use are in RZA’s eyes somehow appreciated less because they did not have to be paid for. Secondly, art is made to be observed and appreciated hopefully by as wide an audience as possible and by releasing one copy that will not be available through any conventional means of purchase Wu-Tang are depriving, literally, millions of fans from ever hearing one of their most ambitious projects ever. The album is 128 minutes and 31 songs, that is even lengthier than the classic Wu-Tang Forever! This might be one of the best albums the Wu has released in years and in the name of being avant-garde most of us will never hear it. Only the most ardent Wu-Tang fan will be willing to travel to one of these velvet rope gallery exhibits to pay an estimate $30-$50 to stand in a cold, sterile place to listen to a 2+ hour album through headphones once.
Music is art and the best way to remind people of that is by making good music and making that music available to as wide an audience at possible. RZA may have opened doors for many loop-based producers but with this marketing strategy he is closing doors on millions of fans. Hopefully, a private citizen, who has millions of dollars to buy an album he has never heard, will purchase the Wu-Tang album and make it available to everyone for a reasonable price. Until then we shall collectively wonder how the grimiest rap group of all-time would rather have their album listened to in the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, France than have it heard in the grimy streets of the Big Apple.