The Wu-Tang Clan made for some lousy overlords of rap. Sure, they had the sales. Sure, they had the skills. And sure, they had the shtick. But once the nine-man crew made it to the top of the heap, something about their presentation seemed off. Hip-hop kingpins are meant to swagger through their domains with the relaxed panache of a Mafia don, like Jay-Z or Biggie, or else lay back up in the hills with snide self-possession amid supermodel backrubs and widescreen TVs, like Dre. You just can't be the king of New York and a ninja assassin simultaneously. The champion's mantle was ill-settled on the shoulders of a pack who, some half a decade back, had made the braggart exposés of West Coast gangsta rap sound course, awkward, and obvious. The Wu-Tang's unlikely trick: crossing 1930s Italian gangster lingo with 1730s Japanese martial-arts mythos, then recombining that blend with 2130's postapocalyptic paranoia.
And so it only makes sense that Wu-Tang should excel in 2000, with their backs to the wall, releasing first Ghost Dog's soulful whisper of a soundtrack, next Ghostface Killah's stinging jab, Supreme Clientele, and now their triumphant reunion, The W (Loud). To cop the cinematic melodrama the Wu love so, this year found the crew two-thirds of the way into the late-night martial-arts flick of their soul. Scattering through their keep in search of a place to regroup, our heroes frantically mouth confused directions to one another that echo in dubbed shouts. The enemies that have tracked our heroes to their secluded hideaway want more than revenge. They want answers. Blood will spill tonight, but secrets will spill first.
Chief secret-monger RZA knows that the shiznit is on the line with The W, only the third album the full nine-member Clan has released since 1994, and so he has pared down The W as much as he has produced it. This 59-minute novella seems carefully compressed after 1997's sprawling, bloated Wu-Tang Forever. Where that last two-disc epic tried to make room for every Wu MC, The W, even if evenly split, would work out to about a scant six or so minutes for each member. Early reports that all of Ghostface's contributions had been mixed out of the record fueled rumors of internal dissent. Did RZA, who forces the MCs in the Wu to outrhyme one another to vie for space, exile the Ghost? Or did that rapper purposefully hold back his best rhymes for his own strong solo joint? (Ghostface does appear, though he rarely grabs the spotlight.) Meanwhile, the psychologically, pharmaceutically, and legally troubled Ol' Dirty Bastard appears on only one track, in samples from earlier records.
Further complicating Wu-Tang's tenuous democracy are the guest shots: For the first time, outsiders have been allowed into the 36 chambers. Snoop Dogg shines--in this context, his creamy drawl suggests an unexpected affinity with Shaolin chessboxing. Not so Busta Rhymes. In "The Monument," an unusually subdued Busta further betrays his growing cluelessness: When he repeatedly asks, "What the fuck now?" no one bothers to answer him. More successful is Isaac Hayes, who leavens the harrowing "I Can't Go to Sleep" with a hilarious spoken/sung break ("Get the jelly out your spine") that is very likely to convince the kids that the chef from South Park is down with the Wu-Tang.
But the eye opener here is the first single, "Gravel Pit," a track so direct you almost think you understand what it's about. "Gravel Pit" slams by setting the hip-hop way-back machine to 1989 to cut a bouncy De La groove with a sampled James Brown-style scream straight from DJ Rob Base and EZ Rock. But best of all, "Gravel Pit" is simple and straightforward, its Stone Age beat offering further proof that the flute is way funkier than it gets credit for being. If such willful nostalgia seems out of character for a group that has hitherto taken great pains to erase the tracks it leaves on hip-hop's present and obscures its place in rap's past, that's because The W is where Wu-Tang faces up to the full weight of history.
In fact, the MCs are obsessed with time here. On "One Blood Under W," the contemplative GZA raps, "I was rollin'/Showin' my age/Unshaven." And it's possible that when Method Man murmurs, "Every time you walk by/Your back get a chill" the phantom that haunts him is one the group would never have imagined in the Shaolin slums--longevity. After prophesying about two-triple-oh as the end of the world for so long, Wu-Tang must consider it a shock to have come out alive on the other end.
But that is, after all, only a guess. Although simplified sonically, The W remains, on a very real level, impenetrable, the rhymes still evocative rather than concrete. "A mystery unravelin'," coos token chanteuse Paulissa Moorman on "Gravel Pit." Um, you know, Paulissa, the mystery still sounds pretty tightly raveled to me.