Wu-Tang Clan

The W (Loud/Columbia)

"This is an album that will make you take off your gators and put your Timberlands back on, take off your silk shirt and put your hoody back on, nawmean?" says the RZA on the Wu-Tang Clan's home page, and he speaks the truth: Seven years after the Wu broke through the pavement with 36 Chambers, the superpower crew has brought rapping back to its essence.

The Clan was eight strong at its beginning in the early '90s, equipped with powerful lyrics, infectious wordplay and, perhaps most important, the RZA, a producer who could channel the landscape of Staten Island, N.Y., through drums, loops and such found samples as chains, gunshots and kung-fu dubs. Over the next four years, five members released solo projects that quickly went classic, feeding their confidence. In 1997, the group dropped their highly anticipated follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever, but overstepped with a lackluster, ultimately disappointing double-disc set; their quick rise inevitably affected their artistry, and the next three years saw bad sales and declining fan morale for Wu releases.

That's one reason The W is such a nice surprise: Those who believe the family fell apart will regain faith in the power of the 36 Chambers. The first single, "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" brings the crew full circle, referring to their first-ever single by the same title, released on a white label before they were signed, and seems a sign from the Clan that they've checked their egos at the door and are ready to throw down. The up-tempo track is more likely to inspire a b-boy cipher than to promote ass-shaking in the clubs, and throughout The W, the RZA exhibits his cinematic versatility on the beats; he's able to conjure both settings (from noises in the halls of the Staten Island projects on "Careful") and dark emotions (the slow limping of the soul after being shot on "Hollow Bones") in his rhythms, and he mixes them with a subtle power.

Nonfamily cameos appear for the first time on a Wu album, but they don't disturb the flow. Names like Nas, Busta, Snoop and Redman drop verses on jig-free tracks that remind you of how they used to sound back when nobody knew who they were; veteran roots-reggae artist Junior Reid blesses two tracks with his melodies and emphasizes a dimension of humbling spirituality, especially on the last track, "Jah World." And Isaac Hayes sings the hook over a loop of his own "Walk On By" on "I Can't Go to Sleep." Ghostface Killah and Raekwon shine lyrically, and even Ol' Dirty Bastard makes an appearance -- recorded while he was in rehab (but before he escaped and was recaptured). As on the classic 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang Clan is unpredictable and original, as though Forever never happened, so you can wear The W with pride.

 
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