WU TANG-CLAN – “I Can’t Go To Sleep”

In Robin Carmody’s review of the Clan’s The W album, “I Can’t Go To Sleep” comes in for particular criticism – Robin sees the stricken lachrymosity of Ghost Face Killa’s vocals and the majestic Hayes sample that underpins the track as evidence of the group trying too hard for meaning and cheap emotional effect. I on the other hand think it’s an extraordinary song. Kris Srinivasan has suggested Ghost Face Killa works as a “campy parody” of the rest of the Wu-Tang, and like “All That I Got Is You”, “I Can’t Go To Sleep” is so striking because of the way it balances sentimentality and absurdity.

The key differences here, though, are that this brink-of-lunacy stuff is incorporated within the whole Wu experience, and that Ghost Face raises the stakes even higher, sobbing out a lament not only for ghetto or hip-hop death, but ultimately for all death – Ghost Face is rapping against death itself. “What the fuck is happening, I can’t go to sleep” he gasps, before reeling through a litany of tragedy – African famine, Malcolm X, Tupac and Biggie, and most extraordinarily JFK – with Hayes’ in guest-star mode trying vainly to soothe things. It’s a draining, intense song, and at the same time it’s entirely ridiculous.

Robin’s review paints the Wu-Tang Clan as proud street warriors who get lazy on the second half of their record. But the Wu-Tang have never worked as realists – they pay lip-service to ‘keeping it real’ far less than most rappers, and the mazy, fabulist flows they trade in operate closer to a dream level than anyone else’s. Combine that with the RZA’s ratatat beats and woozy sample murk and you’ve got something much less cosy and more discomfiting than realism. Like the kung-fu films they revere, Wu-Tang records operate in a kind of magic realist landscape, where impossible feats allegorise real life. The project of gangsta rap was to reflect the streets while positioning the rapper as their boss: the Wu-Tang project is to transform the streets, turning them into a dream-landscape and rewriting the rappers as mythical figures. Hip-hop as situationist role-playing game – it’s no wonder their influence has been so indirect, and it’s no wonder so many hip-hop names lined up to play their part in The W.

No matter how original this conception was, it was still something people could get used to: tracks like “I Can’t Go To Sleep”, by their sheer indulgence and melodrama, help to prick the bubble of expectations a little, to cast internal doubts on even the Wu-Tang’s foggy world. As a track it’s closer to “Moon River” or the Associates’ Sulk than it is to anything other rappers are turning out. And on a basic level I think it’s marvellous that a song as overwrought as this can share album space and a high chart place with something as gnostic and sinister as “Careful (Click, Click)”. Underground rappers may be the conscience of hip-hop, but the Wu-Tang are its subconscious, and mess, extremity, loss of control and nonsense is their stock in trade: “I Can’t Go To Sleep” has them all by the yard.