Taught y'all Niggas how to rap/Reimburse me," chastises Ghostface Killah on the Wu-Tang Clan's third group effort, the dizzying W. He has a right to be cocky: The W completes a comeback that began when Ghost dropped his second solo effort, Supreme Clientele, at the top of this year. Coming after non-orgasmic releases by Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and U-God, Clientele hit the spot by going back to the Wu-yang: vocal samples from cult-y culture figures, furious rhymes and, perhaps most important, the wicked ear of the RZA overseeing the entire project. A working knowledge of the Kama Sutra couldn't have done a better job at saving a strained relationship.
"Ooh . . . the Wu is back up in this motherfucker," muses Snoop Dogg on The W's sixth cut, the embarrassingly catchy "Conditioner." While you would never call a Wu-Tang Clan affair truly accessible, The W is their most inclusive album yet. Just Snoop's appearance marks a change for the group: This is the first time that outside voices have graced a Wu album proper. It's a "historical and monumental" move, as Busta Rhymes observes over the stop-and-go calamity of "The Monument." On "One Blood," reggae icon Junior Reid reworks his classic of the same name, adding a patois lilt to Masta Killa's monotone rhymes. Reid's dusty baritone also complements the surrealism of the militant "Jah World," where the sounds of battle double as musical ornaments.
The W is a sonic gestalt that exists somewhere between the Queensbridge projects and OutKast's Stankonia, down the block from Lee Perry's Black Ark studios, two floors below A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory. "Careful" is quintessential W: U-God drably proclaims that "something in the slum went rum-pa-pum-pum"; a snake charmer's horn is embedded in an atonal bass line; Jacob Marley's chains rattle between jungle drums that could summon King Kong and alert Tarzan that it's time to get out of Dodge.
The criminally grooving "Gravel Pit" shimmies with Sixties film music – it could be the theme song to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Thugged Me. "Protect Ya Neck" is a rhymefest that takes a left turn halfway through, losing its bass line in favor of a stripped-down, drum-driven backdrop that allows RZA to find out what those other buttons on his keyboard are for. "Chamber Music" is an ambient mix of shuffling noise, an incessant high-hat and (for old time's sake) barely audible bits of sampled conversation from a kung-fu flick – with that black stuff that collects on the back of the refrigerator thrown in for good measure.
RZA and the Clan have backed away from their more inscrutable lyrical tendencies: The W has less of the Five Percent polemics, insider slang and rhythmic jabberwocky that have made Wu-Tang cult favorites. (Ghostface is the exception: He manages to work in references to Houdini, Ronzoni, Pink Champale and "Prophets/Death threats in Israel/Slid through Bethlehem" in one thirty-second burst.) It's not that they've stopped trying to say anything, though: The W doesn't choose style over substance; it's style as substance. "I Can't Go to Sleep" is a masterful use of Isaac Hayes' "Walk On By" that features an assist from Hayes himself. Speaking on racial violence and black-on-black crime, Ghost and RZA match the music mood note for note, rising, falling, losing their composure and coming back again. "America's watching, bloodstains, ink blotches," cries RZA. "Medgar took one to the skull for integrating college." It's like Huey P. Newton at the bottom of a bad trip.
Still, there's no shortage of rhyming just for rhyming's sake. On the soul-tingling "Hollow Bones," Inspectah Deck, one of hip-hop's most overlooked verbalists, paints a vivid picture in under twenty words: "Fleein' the crime scene, speedin'/Beefin'/Leavin' behind cream/Not even peepin' that I was leakin'." Meth asks, "Now what Clan you know with lines this ill?"
With their '93 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Clan mythologized their Staten Island stomping grounds as a breeding ground for MCs and street survivalists on par with Queens or Compton. Before the album ran its course, they galvanized head wraps, do-rags and pimp hats as one nation under the Wu. The vote was unanimous: Wu-Tang Clan were the best rap crew ever. Seven years and umpteen hip-hop supergroups later, The W simply reaffirms this Wu-world order.