It is probably spoiled to malign the latest Wu-Tang effort simply because the album doesn’t turn the entire rap world — nay, the music world — on its collective ear as did 1993’s fervently gritty Enter The Wu-Tang and the steaming half of 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever that wasn’t directionless patter. It’s not that The W isn’t a majestically grimy, lyrically spiraling beauty of a record, its just that, like many of the kung-fu flicks that fuel their imagery, the Wu-Tang saga concludes as the students surpass the abilities of the teacher.
The countless disciples of the post-Wu empire seem to be two moves ahead of the game. Ghostface Killah’s lyrical pyrotechnics are insanely impressive as usual on “Gravel Pit,” but would buckle under New York abstract lyrical inheritors Anti-Pop Consortium. The overly twisting, despondent, reverbed aquatic funk of “Careful (Click Click)” is as stirring as any production out there, but is shadowed by the Automator’s recent masterworks. The emotive reggae toasting of Junior Reid used on the groove-heavy but torpid “One Blood Under W” is certainly uplifting, but is no match for the charming dancehall chatter of Barrington Levy implemented on Shyne’s idiotic (but sublimely funky) “Bad Boyz.” But despite overshadowing by its progeny and absence of ambitious production, the Wu is still as poignant, sandpaper-rough, and intellectually challenging as ever, as evident in the melodious melodramatics of “Hollow Bones” and the stomping caws of neo-posse cut “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off).”
A double shot of formidable hip-hop pathos in the disc’s immediate center brings eight minutes of rigorous intensity unseen in this otherwise methodic Wu-banger, or anywhere else for that matter. “Let My Niggas Live” combines conceptual retrospection, Nas’ dismal reality, and eyebrow-raising consciousness rap into a pointed post-Diallo plea. But it is “I Can’t Go to Sleep” that raises the bar for street sentiment. Here Ghostface and RZA coil wailing rhymes about violence and poverty around tense, sweat-inducing scream therapy that borders on a soulful weeping — wrapping their own sweat and tears around pre-existing blood. This calculatedly nervous bawling converges with soulful crescendos to open the first brilliant, scorching chapter of emo-rap, instead of, like the rest of The W, merely rewriting the same brilliant chapter they scribed earlier.