It's a hard album to work out, this. Discredited in many circles after the uncontrolled sprawl of 1997's Forever, which hid near-perfect tracks like "Reunited", "A Better Tomorrow", "Triumph" and "It's Yourz" amidst a messy, overlong sequence of nonenties, especially on the second CD ("Dog Shit", "Heaterz", "Duck Season", "The M.G.M.") they had to scale down, had to sound less consciously ambitious and huge (the shame being that Forever could have been a perfect single album, with the padding removed and the core elements left to stand out better). Back together for an album generally perceived as make-or-break, they had to return to the unobtrusive, unannounced mastery of 1993's 36 Chambers mindbomb - or, at least, get as close as they could; they had to sound casually brilliant without a moment's self-aggrandisement (in itself an unfashionable task given the cult of egotism that has run through hip-hop since). But, while aiming to return to the spirit of '93, the Wu nevertheless seem also to be attempting a rather self-important definitive statement here, as though they're signifying their age by aligning themselves to such qualities as soulfulness and social significance, as if to make overt amends for the lengthy self-indulgence of their last collective effort. It's definitely a less consistent album than Ghostface Killah's recent Supreme Clientele, almost certainly the best Wu solo effort since before Forever. They're almost at war with themselves, and it's frustrating.
They begin absolutely brilliantly, and indeed the great divide in this album is between the first half (flowing, consistent, effortlessly funky) and the second half (incoherent, erratic, frustrating). "Chamber Music" and "Careful (Click, Click)" are two lacerating, devastating shots to the dome, the Clan utterly revitalised as a collective, brimming with life again, the RZA's production as edgy and quietly chilling as it ever was; you're convinced they've not merely gone back to '93, but improved on it. "Hollow Bones" is the best example of their new mature mode; a gorgeous relaxed 70s-ish groove, reflective, cynical emceeing at its best. The Redman collaboration "Redbull" is efficently, steadily funky, as you'd expect. Even the first Junior Reid collaboration, "One Blood Under W", is solid, despite the telling first line referring to "feeling my age" and the lengthy repetitive outro of brass and reverence; the emceeing is enough to save it. And "Conditioner" is terrific; the sort of lazy, poised funk where the reborn Snoop Dogg is in his element, with even the misguided orchestral bombast of its last 90 seconds not working against it. "Protect Ya Neck 3 (The Jump-Off)" is a back-to-'92 stormer, possibly still the best thing here; every line on point, the whole crowd responding, untouchable.
But after that ... the Nas collaboration "Let My Niggas Live" is standard-issue and unsurprising. The Isaac Hayes collaboration "I Can't Go To Sleep" is a long and boring aspiration towards standard ideas of "beauty", "sadness", "melancholia" and such hoary old 70s "real soul" virtues, the orchestration and embarrassing "crying" emceeing combining to make one of the worst things the Wu have yet perpetrated, as bad an example of "meaning it" as most of the second half of Forever was of not giving a shit about anything. Then there's "Do You Really (Thang Thang)", the one track here not produced by the RZA - this was another back-to-basics decision, clearly, and it's worked well, since Allah Mathematics's production on this utterly unmemorable grasp at a street anthem is pathetic.
The brief Busta Rhymes collaboration "The Monument" comes and goes without you noticing for a moment. Then there's "Gravel Pit", which you know, and which sounds a pretty tired and contrived "let's have a hit" moment in this company, and then there's the overlong closer "Jah World"; Junior Reid's pleasant enough, but if their new direction is this melancholic, it just doesn't work, and it feels like a contrived, forced "poignant" ending to the album. It regains a defiant, self-definitive closing quality in its second half, but not as much as I'd hope, though this is still the only moment after "Protect Ya Neck 3" where they regain the pride and defiance that I'd have liked them to display throughout the second half.
So after repeated listens to The W you're left with the ominous impression that the collective Wu-Tang Clan can now only really make half a great album, that they'll carry on, in all forms, making pretty good records without ever making another great one, that they'll never be appalling, but never really startle or astonish again. For the moment, though, for the effortlessly stunning first half alone, it'll do.
Robin Carmody, 13th December 2000