Legend of the Liquid Sword (MCA)

A few years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan's members were everywhere, peddling Wu Wear, moonlighting with Mariah and Limp Bizkit, storming the stage at awards shows and dominating record-store shelves. Alas, there were only so many ways to make minimal variations on minimalist beats while working on tight deadlines, so the Clan devalued its brand name with half-baked solo efforts and sparkless side-projects. Factor in a string of disillusioning live shows (the group would either skip gigs or take the stage near venue curfew, its lyrics disappearing into drunken slurs) and the highly public unraveling and imprisonment of its most intriguing member, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and woe was Wu. Its oversized gear filled clearance racks; its releases stiffed, often deservedly; its once-proud logo seemed as relevant as the No Limit tank.

GZA's Legend of the Liquid Sword won't restore his crew to its previous peaks, mostly because it's too good to incite mainstream mania. There are no Neptunes beats, no R&B guest stars, few easy hooks. Instead, GZA (n Gary Grice) takes the traits that reigned when Wu was king -- dictionary-depleting flows, orchestral swells and erratic synthesized pulses, static-smothered samples that sound as though they were aged for quality, human voices tweaked and looped until they become otherworldly percussive instruments -- and eliminates the decadent frills that marred the Clan's rule. This Sword doesn't waste a cut, slicing off the skits and chopping out the filler.

RZA, the producer behind the soul-meets-the-martial-arts sound that earned the Wu its rep, mans the boards for only one of Sword's fifteen tracks, but a legion of Shaolin-schooled sonic assassins preserves his legacy. The album's only other big-name beatmaker is DJ Muggs, who usually watches Cypress Hill's stoners waste his air-raid-whistle urgency and cinematic string arrangements. Here, he sets up GZA with a tense, thrilling backdrop filled with lingering, quivering notes and prickly piano bursts. The rapper also known as the Genius doesn't disappoint, delivering a devastating portrait of a serial killer terrorizing a tiny town. He chronicles the sociopath's troubled upbringing, horrific acts and eventual arrest in a dispassionate tone, with a thoroughness that makes this tale feel more true than anything from gangsta rap's "keep it real" storybook.

The only Wu-Tang member who consistently writes songs with themes rather than stringing together sweet-sounding syllables without concern for context, GZA outdoes himself with "Animal Planet." This lush jungle boogie name-checks almost every creature that's ever appeared on the Discovery Channel, but a music-industry analogy lurks underneath, one that warns of gambling with cheetahs and swimming with lone sharks. Later, he puts a twist on the old fun-with-surnames game, working Brad's pit and Vanessa's red grave, among countless others, into a dense narrative that wrings an astounding number of great lines out of this gimmick. ("Water dripped out of Farrah's faucet into a glass/She was Superfly/Curtis Mayfield her ass.") His group may be getting dull, but GZA's Sword remains razor-sharp.

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