Sobs, Static, and Sweat

Everyone knows how the Wu-Tang Clan fucked up. After the dense, heady rush of their brilliant 1993 debut, the group went their separate ways, releasing a series of mostly excellent solo projects. When it came time to regroup for their sophomore album in 1997, they decided to think big. The result was a four-LP set called Wu-Tang Forever, uneven and self-indulgent. Rap's most ambitious group had started to believe its own hype.

The group's fame and importance have been in decline ever since. But so what? Wu-Tang Foreverwas a failure, sure, but a spectacular one. It wasn't just long, it was endless; it ignored the constraints of time while embracing the possibilities of space. The beats were sketchy, the samples and synths were rudimentary, and the Clan's grandiloquent verses hovered in midair, more or less unfettered by meter. They delighted in their obscurantism: "Niggas ain't gonna figure it out 'til the year 2G."

OK, time's up. Chastened by their dalliance with prog-rap, the shadowboxers from Shaolin returned last month with a short, smart, unexpectedly mean-spirited album called The W. They look a bit silly on the back cover, standing around scowling in their black jumpsuits—if they're trying to relaunch Wu-Wear, they probably shouldn't be dressing like Slipknot. But the album itself is furious enough to allay any misgivings. Do the math: With nine Clan members (yes, Ol' Downey Bastard puts in an appearance or two) and four guest rappers crammed into 14 songs, hardly anyone gets a chance to spit more than a handful of verses. To increase the drama, house producer RZA turns up the levels so that consonants pop like snare drums and vowels turn fuzzy like guitars.

On "Careful (Click, Click)," one of the album's best songs, Ghostface Killah experiments with onomatopoeia, crafting an unlikely hook by describing the menacing and nearly silent sound of a cheap blade being unsheathed: "Something in the hall went, 'Click, click'/The box-cutter went, 'Click, click.' " RZA backs Ghostface's whispered refrain with a pair of gunshots, a flute loop, a fleeting snippet of '70s funk, a dusty drum sample, and . . . well, you get the idea. From fractured soul to double-speed guitar, from digital meltdowns to analogue sound effects, no one splices together music and noise like RZA. Filled with startling jump cuts and puzzling reverberations, The Wis the best-produced Wu-affiliated album since GZA's 1995 Liquid Swords.

As RZA's beats get more complex, the Clan's lyrics get simpler. Wu-Tang Forever was filled with tongue twisters, such as Inspectah Deck's immortal boast: "I bomb atomically/Socrates's philosophies and hypotheses/Can't define how I be dropping these mockeries." The W, on the other hand, is too fast—or too unpredictable—to reward the intricacies of internal rhyme. On a brisk posse cut called "Gravel Pit," Method Man delivers a pithy quatrain of doggerel: "Can't stand niggas that floss too much/Can't stand Bentleys, they cost too much/Kid wanna get up? Then kid get touched/Kid wanna stick up? Then kid get stuck."

As it turns out, the most memorable lyrics on The Waren't rapped at all. They're, um, sobbed. You haven't heard such wailing and bemoaning since the last half-hour of Dancer in the Dark—surely this isn't what RZA had in mind when he claimed to "talk strange like Björk." The reggae singer Junior Reid gets all emotional on "Jah World," but the worst offender is Ghostface Killah, who drops tearful lyrics on two different tracks, including an unforgettable Isaac Hayes collaboration called "I Can't Go to Sleep." Hayes maintains his usual composure—he sings like a tone-deaf Barry White—but Ghostface's distress is contagious, and RZA ends up shedding a tear for JFK, of all people: "Oh, Jacqueline! You heard the rifle shots crackling/Her husband's head in her hair, you tried to put it back in." This is the last straw for the soulful Scientologist, who croons his parting advice: "The power is in your hands/Stop all this crying, and be a man."

Eight years after their first single, it's a thrill to hear Wu-Tang sounding so unhinged. But it's also a pain in the ass. With nine voices, nine styles competing for your ear, even the most carefully crafted Wu-Tang album flirts with chaos, and the listener is left to separate milestones from mistakes. The Wbursts with inspiration, but what does it all mean? You can't help wishing there was someone in charge.

No one's ever had that complaint about Jay-Z. Since 1996, he has been one of hip-hop's most riveting MCs, and his albums evoke a fantasy of total control: mind over matter, mind over mouth. The syllables just pour out confident, conversational—as if he'd have us believe that his every thought is an exquisite couplet. Where RZA sets up little sonic roadblocks to keep his rappers from getting too comfortable, Jay-Z generally chooses sleek, pulsatile beats that stretch his meter without disrupting it. He's got it down to a science: Part of Jay-Z's charm is his detachment, his clinical eye for detail. Early on, he crafted one of rap's most vivid images of cash when he described torturing the girlfriend of an ex-accomplice: "My hand around her collar, feeding her cheese/She said the taste of dollars was shitty, so I fed her fifties/About his whereabouts I wasn't convinced/So I kept feeding her money 'til her shit started to make sense."

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