A Work of Art

RZA unveils Wu-Tang Clan’s final album at MoMA PS1.

Once Upon a Time In Shaolin by Wu-Tang Clan

It’s hard to imagine encountering a security protocol more excessive than the TSA’s at a museum, but such was the case Monday night at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. Some 150 civilians were forced to hand over their smartphones—judging by the crowd’s low-level panic, this came as a surprise—before being examined by not one wave of security with metal-detector wands, but two. (This second line of defense was hired, incredibly, to check if anyone was “bugged.”) One guest, having already been detained once, greeted the next guard incredulously: “Are you serious?” she asked.

We were not there to witness the unveiling of a priceless work of art. We were there for what was essentially an album release party. Except this album was, allegedly, the Wu-Tang Clan’s final record. And there is only one copy of it in the world. And buying it could set you back millions.

When Robert Diggs—better known as the RZA, the “abbott” of the Wu-Tang Clan—announced this plan about a year ago, it seemed like either stunt marketing or foolhardy vainglory. But the RZA has never been afraid of grandiosity; this is a rapper who once wrote a book, The Tao of Wu, in which he positioned himself as hip-hop’s Confucius. (A typical RZA-ism: “It’s harder to make glass than break the glass.”) As this speculative idea hardened in his protean brain—in addition to rapping, producing, and writing, he also acts and directs films—he became convinced the only way to put out such a one-off edition was to treat it as blue-chip art. PS1, then, was the site of the album’s one-night-only exhibition; and the online auction house Paddle8, which put the record on the block yesterday, would be its dealer. (If you have the means, it is for sale here.)

Upon entering the domed tent outside on the museum grounds, it was hard to ignore the spotlight being shone, like a beacon on a holy relic, down on the hand-carved nickel-silver box that purportedly holds Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the 128 minutes of new songs, skits, and stories that are the culmination of Wu-Tang’s two-decade run—especially as the box was behind velvet rope and flanked by two comically large men in Secret Service tailoring. We sat, waiting, until we were eventually treated to a 13-minute slice of the album—the hard drums and furious lyricism were classic Wu; the Cher cameo was not—that may never be heard by the public in this lifetime. (The conditions set by the RZA, a notorious control freak, prohibit the eventual owner from releasing the music commercially for the next 88 years.)

Then the RZA took the stage for a talk. In his ball cap, thick plastic frames, motorcycle jacket, and bootcut pants, he resembled the L.A. movie director he now seems primarily to be. Alongside was an auxiliary Wu-Tang member, Cilvaringz, who produced much of the album, and Genius executive editor Sasha Frere-Jones, who seemed to be present to play up the RZA’s childlike way with the English language. (RZA: “We have a date planned, right? But strictly plutonic.” Frere-Jones: “I’ll make sure to keep it plutonic.”) He also seemed to be there to disperse much of the hot air the RZA was putting out into the dome.

For the RZA proselytized. He compared the album to the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, the Statue of Liberty. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was, in his eyes, “a time capsule,” a “piece of history,” “revolutionary,” “the future,” and “the seal to a musical legacy.” Not to mention “the best album cover in musical history.” But for all the pomp and circumstance of its release, one question went unasked that probably bears mentioning: If the monetary value of art is established over time by experts and consensus of opinion, then how much is something which has been shielded from critical eyes and only experienced by the collector really worth?

The RZA didn’t tackle that question, but he did say that he envied whoever would eventually own the album. He also added that nothing stopped that collector from releasing the contents for free. “Hopefully,” the RZA joked, “he’ll be a philanthropist.” He sounded as if he’d been part of the art world for years.