Released: June 23, 2009
Good but just never good enough seems like the perfect way of describing U-God, his music and his career. Even when the legendary Wu-Tang Clan was at the height of its fame, U-God was never its most prominent member. In a collective filled with some of the most talented artists the genre had to offer, it seemed that he never had what it took to truly distinguish himself from his contemporaries. Unfortunately enough, he ended up just being known as that guy with the deep voice and his first solo album, Golden Arms Redemption, was lost in the torrent of Wu affiliated albums that saturated the hip-hop market in the late 90s. If you think that his 2009 release, Dopium, was created just to keep him even marginally relevant, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong but you would also be selling the album short. Dopium bears some of the hallmarks of the group’s early efforts but amazingly, none of the lethargic malaise that has tainted their more recent efforts. There are some solid bangers in this album and while U-God himself tends be stood up by his more talented guests, the album as a whole is altogether better than anyone would expect from a rapper long forgotten by the mainstream.
It is difficult to speak in superlatives about any aspect of U-God’s rapping. It isn’t that he conspicuously lacks talent but rather that compared to similarly technically mediocre rapper, U-God offers disappointingly little in the way of compensation. There are no witty punchlines, no fresh concepts and no engrossing tales told; instead, the man born Lamont Hawkins, relies on his increasingly irrelevant affiliation to the Wu-Tang for his musical credibility. In his defence, U-God does his best to put his borrowed credibility to good use – the album’s guest stars, a mixture of his old Wu brothers and other semi-underground artists, are easily the best part of the album and probably would have considered the project beneath them were it not for the enduring mystique of the famed ‘W’. For his own part, U-God does seem to have realised that his natural sense of rhythm and deep baritone are not enough to keep him afloat in the rap game; Dopium showcases a reinvigorated Universal God, complete with better, sharper rhymes and a renewed sense of purpose on the beat. In the majority of the tracks however, even his reborn artistic energy isn’t quite enough to keep him from being overshadowed by his guests. In some cases, that is perfectly acceptable – on their best days, artists like the GZA and the Method Man are capable of burying the best MCs – but the trouble is that even other artists like Slaine and Mike Ladd outshine him easily and he is left as the feature artist on his own track. Yet, none of this is to suggest that the man is incapable of holding his own – indeed, the album’s titular track, its best, feature U-God and U-God alone.
It would also be inaccurate to suggest that the album’s failing lie with its artist alone. From a production standpoint, the album tries to be too many things at once. There are tracks that throw the listener back to the Wu-Tang glory days of grit and grime (‘Train Trussle’, ‘Wu-Tang’) but then there are tracks that seem like half-hearted attempts at breaking into the mainstream (‘Hips’, ‘Rims’) that are both cheap and pandering. The album is also incredibly burdened by an utterly unnecessary set of house/electro remixes of the some of the album’s better tracks, as if the album can’t decide what demographic and audience it wants to appeal to. One thing is clear – this is no carefully constructed, incisively insightful concept album. There are no deeper themes or thought-provoking ideas being discussed in the album; the album is little more than a collection of recordings banded together with the express purpose of making money. Despite all that, the album still works just fine musically on a track by track basis; the album’s guests and the slew of producers are able to cobble together enough quality to ensure that several of the better tracks are worthy of any hip-hop fan’s consideration. Unfortunately, in the process, the lime light evades the album’s creator yet again.