All nine members of the Wu-Tang Clan have finally joined forces for their first album in seven years – but it sounds more like one of RZA’s soundtrack projects gone haywire. Glutted with live instruments and tricky structures, the production is heavy on grind-house twists – Ennio Morricone gone electro (“Felt”), Bollywood groove (“Ron O’Neal”), spy-flick tension (“Necklace”) and even the strummy drama of a good Godfather rip (“Ruckus in B Minor”). But all those live drums and orchestral embellishments rob the Wu of their trademark claustrophobic, gritty, sample–based style. Take “Miracle,” a Shaolin power ballad that gets so overblown it sounds more like John Legend on a slow train to Linkin Park.
Those production flaws are too bad, because the crew’s rapping can still be some of the most masterful and unique on the planet. Method Man, 43, joins Eminem and Busta Rhymes in the class of rap veterans who only get more knotty and technical with age. And the margins can barely hold GZA’s flow as the science-buff MC raps about the dust and ice in Saturn’s rings. This is the sound of a team of great fighters competing in an uncomfortable new arena.