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."

Then, in 1998, he deftly switched gears, producing a string of masterful collaborations including "Money, Cash, Hoes," featuring DMX; "Things that U Do," featuring Mariah Carey; and the infamous "Hard Knock Life (The Ghetto Anthem)," featuring a chorus of loudmouthed orphans. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000- ), Jay-Z's fifth album in as many years, adds another new pop classic—a Rick James update called "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." Over a guitar-and-drum punch cooked up by the Neptunes, Jay-Z tells a story that sounds like Pretty Womanin reverse: He's a high roller with a heart of gold, waiting for some hooker to come along and drag him back into the gutter. Like Julia Roberts, he's not quite heartless enough to stick to the no-nonsense rules of the sex trade: "Might buy you Cris', but that about it/Might light your wrist, but that about it/Fuck it—I might wife you and buy you nice whips." He's talking about champagne, diamonds, and cars, but his words are soon washed away by a pair of irresistible choruses, crooned in a ridiculous falsetto.

Jay-Z's in fine form throughout, but the production sounds a bit flat (big-name beatmakers like DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland are conspicuously absent), and apprentices Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel ride roughshod over the 15 songs. As usual, Bleek raps like he's on autopilot, boiling down Jay-Z's persona into a charmless caricature. Sigel is more engrossing, exaggerating Jay-Z's propensity for polysyllabic rhyme by repeating words and sounds so that each line bleeds into the next. He can be pedantic, but when he hits his stride, the effect is mesmerizing. On a weepy (it's an epidemic!) song called "Where Have You Been," Sigel hollers at his deadbeat dad: "It's about time we have a father-to-son/Sit down, let me tell you about your fatherless sons/How they grew to be men, and fathered their sons/Fathered their daughters/Nigga, you left a fatherless daughter/I'll never follow your orders." Where's Isaac Hayes when you need him?

The most alarming thing about Roc La Familiais the occasional whiff of desperation. On "Squeeze 1st," Jay-Z borrows a chorus from the Notorious B.I.G. and a trebly beat from Eminem's scrap heap, then repeats his favorite stanza four times in a row. What do you do after you've conquered the world? Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z doesn't really have an answer. Maybe that explains why both Roc La Familiaand The Wfeature embarrassing excursions into screaming melodrama, not to mention ill-considered cameos by Snoop Dogg—everyone's trying too hard. Maybe this anxiety explains all the static: The Wstarts and finishes with the noise of a radio being tuned, and Roc La Familiafloats out on a bed of vinyl hisses and pops.

For a few years in the late 1990s, the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z left the hip-hop world behind. They were businessmen, warriors, leaders, and visionaries, but mostly they were heroes. And they made casual, unhurried, effortlessly exciting albums, as if there were a million places they'd rather be. But someone's unplugged the hype machine, and the thrilling arrogance of a few years ago has been replaced by a certain unseemly eagerness to please. (Quick, get Snoop Dogg!) Wu-Tang and Jay-Z have fallen back to earth, and they're doing their best to make sure they don't fall any further. These albums sound like hard work.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with that. Part of what makes hip-hop so exciting is that it doesn't much reward veterans: Even industry giants have to hustle to keep up with the young guns. Still, it's disappointing to hear Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan breaking a sweat. A few years ago, it seemed like they could do anything they put their minds to—rap was the least of their worries. Things are different now. It's like a rude awakening: You mean all they know how to do is rap?

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