A new Wu-Tang Clan album arrives to a flood of high expectations. Not only did their debut album and many of the members' early solo albums pretty much become instant classics, but the majority of their releases since then have failed to meet that high standard, at least in the eyes of most critics and fans (myself excluded). While the Wu-Tang Clan are without question legends in hip-hop, the critical consensus at this point seems to be that they're increasingly losing steam.
On the surface, the Clan's third album The W seems like a blatant attempt to win those ears back, by resurrecting the sound of their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Cosmetically the albums share a lot, from a relatively short length (at least from a group who last released a colossal double-album) to a stripped-down sound and a reliance on samples from martial arts films. Plus, The W includes a song, "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)", with a title nearly identical to a track on the debut and a handful of lyrical allusions to the debut. But all of that is just surface. While the Wu might be trying to recapture the feeling of their debut album, at this point it's impossible. When you go from a ragtag bunch of young MCs living in the projects to international superstars in a short period of time, change is inevitable. Simply put, the Wu-Tang Clan of today is not the same as the Clan of 1993. And for this, we are blessed.
Every Wu-Tang Clan member is growing as an MC as the years go by. Put them all together again now, after they've each done their own things separately, and you get an entirely new dynamic, a mix of the dark and the bright, dense sonic architecture and light, catchy singles. In a weird way, The W travels more ground than the extra-long Wu-Tang Forever did, from two of the most accessible songs they've done ("Gravel Pit", "Do You Really (Thang Thang)") to "I Can't Go To Sleep", a bizarre, ultraparanoid track that is musically a remake of Isaac Hayes' version of "Walk On By", with Hayes along for the ride. That track and a handful of others ("Hollow Bones" and "Let My Niggas Live (featuring Nas)" in particular) together convey a running theme of the album: the chaos, sadness and paranoia that lies beneath the surface of modern urban America. For a group which thrives on absurdist, all-over-the-place lyrics, on these songs the Wu have created a cohesive, overwhelmingly vivid portrait of inner-city life as a day-to-day nightmare.
On The W, the Wu are joined by a handful of guests: not just Nas and Isaac Hayes but also Busta Rhymes, Redman, Junior Reid and Snoop Dogg (dueting with recorded-before-arrest rhymes by Ol Dirty Bastard on the surprisingly effective "Conditioner"). While it's common for MCs to use guests as support, or to fill space on an otherwise failing recording, here the guests add lively extra voices to the mix, giving a diverse album even more depth. The two collaborations with reggae singer Junior Reid are especially intriguing; the pairing brings out the mellow, contemplative side of the group. All in all, The W shows that the Wu are capable of about anything if they work at it. On paper the album might not seem as ambitious as Wu-Tang Forever, but in reality it's even more so, the sound of a group growing up and realizing that collaboration can lead to endless creativity.