I live in Tokyo, a crucial, safe-ish distance from the earthquake. But I didn’t know that yet on Friday, when I stood braced under the door to my porch, watching electric cables slap like double dutch ropes. I had never felt anything like it, tremors as deep as ocean waves, like snowboarding standing still. In fact I’d spent most of my life totally sure of the ground beneath my feet, both literally, since I’m originally from Texas, and metaphorically, since I come from about the most stable background you can imagine. Not just an American, but a middle class white American whose parents are still married (and I mean middle class with all those implications it’s quickly losing — Dad never got fired; my parents paid for most of my college).
With that background, it might seem weird that I ever got into hip-hop. I mostly think that it’s because anxiety about the future is part of being human, part of having your own, uniquely unknowable future, one whose edge is swinging for you whether you’re an angsty suburban teenager or a rough hustler. But worrying about the future comes in different degrees — I’ve never felt anything like that moment on Friday. Nobody in Tokyo could really have known from one moment to the next whether they were going to live or die. It’s easy to face something like that — or even more, to watch the horrific aftermath on TV — and fold up, thinking there’s nothing to be done.
About a day after the quake, I was riding the recently reopened Yamanote line (this was before we’d gotten properly paranoid about aftershocks and nuclear meltdowns, and decided to stay put). I put on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, after weeks of delaying any serious engagement with an album that has been hotly anticipated for over two years. The album began life as a proposed continuation of the internal Wu controversies surrounding 8 Diagrams, and there’s still traces of that — no RZA production in sight. But whatever the philosophy, this is clearly a Wu-Tang album, in the broadest sense, from the kung-fu samples to the chop-socky production of Wu-affiliates like Mathematics, Cilvaringz, and Bronze Nazareth.
The first six fast-moving tracks show just why hip-hop — and particularly the Wu’s patented minor-key militarism — has been such an intoxicating antidote to life’s ruggedness. An earthquake is a scary thing, but imagine waking up every morning in a society that’s trying to destroy you — and then deciding not just that you’re going to keep going, but that you’re going to beat it. At its best moments, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang captures both the grim, dark, threatening reality of life and the decision to face those threats without fear. The beats are paranoid and high-tension, but also triumphant, from the skittering strings of the titular opener, to the swinging hook of “Butter Knives,” to the eerie, fog-shrouded “Snake Pond” by relative unknown Selasi. Ghostface may be the most spectacular survivor of the Wu, but Rae is its real heart; the voice of speed, he moves through these tracks like a field of threats, chronicling progress towards a goal that’s never lost. This is probably going to cost me any illusions of objectivity, but I found myself drawing strength from that sound.
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is certainly not a perfect album — the good-to-great tracks are recorded way too cleanly, and there are some really awful bits, particularly “Rock n’ Roll,” which could be an excerpt from Rent. In fact, that track, along with a couple other whiffs like “Chop Chop Ninja,” goes too heavy on the overcoming braggadocio without keeping the necessary tension of uncertainty. But that rich determination, controlling emotion without forgetting it, is what I needed at that moment. It’s what Japan is going to need for a few months or years, and also what everyone needs sometime during their lives. Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang isn’t by any means the best example of that sensation, but as I rode that train, it helped me get through a pretty crazy moment. The aftershocks still aren’t over, and it’s going to be a long recovery, with a lot of bodies and a lot of struggle. But that’s why we make music — because if we didn’t, there’d be no way through at all.