Wu-Tang Clan The W

After redefining hip-hop with their off-kilter beats, fractured flows and considerable business savvy in the mid-'90s, the Wu had until recently been losing steam. After the first round of solo projects by group members, the subsequent flurry of filler by various Wu affiliates quickly devalued their stock. But Supreme Clientele, Ghostface Killah's strong sophomore set, reawakened interest in the Staten Island collective and had heads asking if the Wu could reclaim their glory. Perhaps learning the lessons taught by the bloated and disappointing Wu-Tang Forever, the Wu have noticeably pared things down, with fewer tracks and an absence of the usual strong thematic focus. With RZA handling virtually all the production, Method Man and Ghostface Killah especially shine, confirming their status as the clique's most consistent wordsmiths. However, for every flash of brilliance, like the merry bounce of "Gravel Pit" and the melancholy "Hollow Bones," there are moments of head-scratching inanity like "Conditioner," ODB's frazzled collaboration with Snoop Dogg and Isaac Hayes's participation in the badly executed "I Can't Go To Sleep," which hijacks Hayes's "Walk On By." The Clan haven't lost all their witty unpredictability by any means, but the occasional lazy passing off of old school beats as avant-garde and the minimal contributions of some members, not to mention their past achievements, indicate they can do much better than this. (Sony)