Iron Flag is the fourth studio album by American East Coast hip hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, released on December 18, 2001 on Loud Records. It was certified gold in sales by the RIAA. Iron Flag served as the group's second lowest-selling album (687,000 copies), as their record label, Loud, was on the verge of shutting down at the time. The album debuted at No. 32 on the Billboard 200 with 153,000 copies sold in its first week of release. It has sold 500,000 copies in the United States, & certified Gold by the RIAA on January 29, 2002.
A gap of four years separated both the first and second albums; and three years between the second and third albums; with those gaps being filled by a myriad of solo projects. It was consequently surprising to many when the Clan reformed for a new LP only a year after their well-received 2000 album The W, with only RZA's Digital Bullet and Ghostface Killah's Bulletproof Wallets released in between. The album's promotion was also quite low-key, particularly in comparison to the fanfare, hype and expensive videos that had preceded the release of the group's two previous albums. Unusual for hip hop albums of the time, Iron Flag only consists of twelve tracks (which contain thirteen songs plus a short introduction) with no interludes or skits between songs. This is similar to The W, which only consisted of thirteen tracks (though unlike Iron Flag it did feature interludes and skits).
Ol' Dirty Bastard's contributions to the Wu-Tang's group albums continued to decrease with each successive album: after being one of the main stars of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, he was by far the least prolific Clan member on the group's follow-up album Wu-Tang Forever. He then made only one appearance on The W (on the song "Conditioner") due to being engulfed in legal troubles; legal troubles which in the year separating The W and Iron Flag had only gotten worse. Consequently, ODB does not appear on Iron Flag at all, making The W the final Wu-Tang album to feature him. He does, however, appear on 8 Diagrams posthumously.
Another absentee is Cappadonna: after being merely a very close affiliate of the group on Wu-Tang Forever, he appeared to have become absorbed into the group itself as a full member on The W (tracks with his contributions no longer being marked as "featuring Cappadonna"). In the year following the release of The W Cappadonna had become dissatisfied with being in the group (RZA has said he felt unhappy that people outside of the group did not respect him as much as the original nine members) and had also been in dispute with the group over the revelation that his manager Michael Caruso was a police informant. Whatever the case, he only appears once on the album in a bridge for the hidden song, "The Glock". Although, it should be noted that he appears on the original cover of the album but was air brushed out. The original cover appears on the back of the "Wu-Tang Manual" by RZA. This suggests that he might have been removed from the album in post production.
Revisiting old sounds
Rather than stick to one unified sound for most of the album's tracks, as with previous Clan albums, much of Iron Flag returns to many different individual sounds and styles that the Wu-Tang had visited over the years:
- "Chrome Wheels" uses the synthesizer-heavy "digital orchestra" sound of RZA's Bobby Digital In Stereo (RZA also raps in the song as his Bobby Digital persona, and Bobby Digital is name checked in the bridge (sung by Madame D). "Dashing (Reasons)" also uses the Bobby Digital sound, with the Digital trademarks of the off-kilter keyboard riff, a high-pitched portamento sine wave synthesizer, and prominent synthesized hi-hats.
- "Radioactive (Four Assassins)" is firmly in the gritty, foreboding style of the Wu-Tang's debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): it has a recurring dialogue sample from a martial arts movie, short and indistinct one-note samples buried in the mix, a quickly looping ascending bassline, and hard, pounding drums. The beat also incorporates the sound of shuriken throwing blades, which are "launched" with a single B note, before the sound effect pans from right to left then back again before dissipating. The repeated horn blare at the start of every bar is also reminiscent of Public Enemy, particularly "Night of the Living Baseheads."
- "Iron Flag" has all the hallmarks of the Wu-Tang Forever sound: string samples coupled with subtle keyboards and a sped-up vocal sample (a technique which was pioneered by the RZA on Wu-Tang Forever but which by the time of Iron Flag's release had been widely imitated by many, most notably Just Blaze and Kanye West).
- "Uzi (Pinky Ring)" recalls The W's murky blaxploitation-influenced atmosphere with its dramatic horn riffs and gritty drums. "Soul Power (Black Jungle)" is also reminiscent, albeit to a lesser extent, of The W.
Many of the remaining tracks sound little like much the Clan had done before, and little like each other. This may be a result of the collaborators involved: all of the above tracks are produced by the RZA, whereas of the remaining six, only two are RZA produced. Two are produced by in-house Wu-Elements producers True Master and Mathematics:
- True Master's "Y'all Been Warned" is a simple one-bar composition with a funky guitar riff over a steady rhythm and a deeply buried piano sample. The advance copy of Iron Flag featured a slightly different version of this song which featured a synthesizer line over the top of the guitar riff. It is not known why this was changed for the final release.
- Mathematics' "Rules" features a pattern of one bar repeated three times then a one-bar turnaround. The repeated bar features four samples layered in a vaguely call-and-response structure: an initial horn sample is answered by a James Brown grunt, which is answered by a two-chord piano sample, which is answered by another James Brown grunt. The horn sample is highest in the mix and effectively "leads" the other samples. The turnaround bar has two descending chords with a high-pitched picked guitar riff, bringing the four-bar pattern to the start once again. With its intro of scratched samples of various Wu-Tang lyrics, this track can be viewed as reminiscent of hip-hop producer DJ Premier's distinctive style.
Though these two producers are known for their distinctly traditional Wu-Tang sound, these two beats do not particularly resemble much of the Clan's previous output, at least not as a group. If anything, they resemble some of the sharp 1970s soul-influenced funk tracks from the Wu-Tang's 1999-2000 solo albums (U-God's "Dat Gangsta" and "Soul Dazzle" from Golden Arms Redemption, Inspectah Deck's "Word on the Street" and "Movers and Shakers" from Uncontrolled Substance).
There had been some discontent among fans and critics when The W included non-Wu Tang affiliated hip hop crossover superstars Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. Nevertheless, Iron Flag also makes use of non-Wu artists well known in their own right: Flavor Flav of Public Enemy provides the chorus for "Soul Power (Black Jungle)", and "Back in the Game" features both pop-rap hitmakers Trackmasters and soul legend Ronald Isley. Nick "Fury" Loftin also produces "One of These Days", sampling Donny Hathaway's rendition of Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul" for its hook and using a fairly generic coupling of muffled horn stabs and soul guitar.
"Back in the Game" opens with the same vocal sample ("if what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous!") as 36 Chambers, but it sounds little like anything the Clan had done before; it also sounds little like well-known Trackmasters hits of the time, such as R. Kelly's "Fiesta" (apart from its use of bongos). A delicate piano melody is layered over a heavy organ vamp and a stumbling, complex rhythm.
A number of critics, such as the NME's Ted Kessler and The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin, saw Flavor Flav's appearance as a way to temporarily fill the clownish role of the absent Ol' Dirty Bastard. Flav sings the call-and-response chorus of "Soul Power (Black Jungle)" with U-God, and has a long conversation with Method Man in the song's outro about growing up in Long Island, where Flav hails from.
|1||"In the Hood"||Elgin Turner, Robert Diggs, Jason Hunter, Patrick Charles||RZA|
|2||"Rules"||Dennis Coles, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Jason Hunter, Clifford Smith, Ronald Bean, Patrick Charles||Mathematics|
|3||"Chrome Wheels"||Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Robert Diggs, Vergil Ruff||RZA|
|4||"Soul Power (Black Jungle)" (featuring Flavor Flav)||Lamont Hawkins, Dennis Coles, Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Jason Hunter, Clifford Smith||RZA|
|5||"Uzi (Pinky Ring)"||Lamont Hawkins, Dennis Coles, Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Jason Hunter, Clifford Smith, Gary Grice, Clarence Reid, Russel Jones||RZA|
|6||"One of These Days"||Lamont Hawkins, Nick Loftin, Corey Woods, Jason Hunter, Patrick Charles||Nick "Fury" Loftin|
|7||"Ya'll Been Warned"||Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Jason Hunter, Clifford Smith, Derek Harris, Patrick Charles||True Master|
|8||"Babies"||Dennis Coles, Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Jason Hunter, Gary Grice||RZA|
|9||"Radioactive (Four Assassins)"||Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Gary Grice, Clifford Smith||RZA|
|10||"Back in the Game" (featuring Ron Isley)||Dennis Coles, Corey Woods, Gary Grice, Jason Hunter, Clifford Smith, Samuel Barnes, Jean-Claude Olivier||Trackmasters|
|11||"Iron Flag"||Lamont Hawkins, Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, Elgin Turner, Jason Hunter, Dennis Coles, Darryl Hill||RZA|
|12||"Dashing (Reasons)"||Robert Diggs, Jason Hunter, Gary Grice||RZA|
|13||"The W" (Bonus track)||Robert Diggs, Lamont Hawkins, Jason Hunter, Gary Grice||RZA|
|"Uzi (Pinky Ring)"|
|"Back in the Game"|
Album chart positions
|Billboard 200||Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums|
Singles chart positions
|Billboard Hot 100||Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks||Hot Rap Singles|
|2002||"Uzi (Pinky Ring)"||-||93||16|