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The Wu is infallible. Or damn-near, at least. Praise your disposable icons, your momentary It men, your weeded-out bards of the boulevard, if you will. But send your Mystikals, Juveniles, or Nellys to the barren zones of Staten Island inhabited by the Wu and they’ll come back broke from follicle to cuticle. In an age of glory-struck soloists, the Wu has mastered the art of the collective. And while its contemps spit out variations on the same genital/material themes, deciphering the Wu’s rhymes is about as simple as reading Braille hieroglyphics.

Dig: The Wu-Tang Clan is the first set of cats this side of Parliament-Funkadelic to run an extended metaphor through its entire body of work. We ain’t talking about a universe imperiled by the terminally underfunked here, but a whole cosmology wrung from comic books and Saturday-afternoon kung-fu flicks. Thus, the Wu-Tang home province of Staten is reborn as Shaolin, one’s verbal acuity is referenced as the “sharpness of the sword,” and the Clan’s musical signature includes clacks, thumps, and whizzes jacked from chop-sockey classics like Enter the Dragon.

These brothers are on a mission so deep that even their aliases have pseudonyms: Method Man aka Johnny Blaze, Raekwon aka Lou Diamonds, Ghostface Killah aka Tony Starks (which also happens to be the true identity of Iron Man). Plus, they’ve got the deepest genealogy in the game. There are more Wus than Wayanses. Or Winanses. And like the galactic funk engineers of Parliament, Wu-Tang’s chief visionary, RZA, conceived of the group as a community-employment program: You ain’t seen this many guys onstage at one time since, like, the Carter administration. But the similarities end there. Unlike the funksters of yore, Wu-Tang is all about grit, grime, and slum parables.

In the wasteland of contemporary music, there’s a fine line between vision and schtick. Indeed, a lesser squad of verbalists pushing the same unwieldy conceit would’ve found itself interred deep in the schtick graveyard. But the combination of RZA’s liquid, noir production style and the ability of wordsmiths Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killa to spill dark images into your head puts Wu-Tang firmly on the vision side of the line.

The singular genius of RZA (aka Bobby Digital) was in conceiving of a group that was intended from the start to split up. That way you don’t contend with the perennial question of which member is gonna go solo first. True to form, in the seven years since it debuted with Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the group has split twice, its members releasing 13 solo projects as well as the double CD Wu-Tang Forever. And RZA has mined his audio archives to provide tracks for almost 20 CDs by other artists and done the score for the martial-arts epic Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai on the side. And therein lies the question cats on the street are asking: As a collective, has Wu-Tang got anything left in its tank? Well, it looks like Wu-Tang ain’t gonna pull over anytime soon: The W is probably the best thing that the clan has generated yet.

Just check the onomatopoeic “Careful (Click, Click)”: Backed by a murky, narcotic track just this side of triphop and laced with an intermittent, mournful horn, the cut is classic Wu-Tang. The tight production work is matched by Ghostface Killah’s talent for custom-fit non sequiturs. In the past, Ghostface made you wrap your brain around gems like “I ran the dark ages/Constantine the Great, Henry the VIII/Built with Ghengis Khan, the red suede wiley Don.” This time out, he delivers lines like “These are the bones of Houdini/Ronzoni noodles sprinkled on your enemy.” Short of the manic, acid-trip rants produced by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghost’s lines are the most enigmatic inventions of a group that specializes in lyrical obscurity.

And dig the digital wail that dominates “Hollow Bones.” Featuring a funk-laden guitar riff and a thick bass scaffolding, the track runs through a series of grim boulevard scenarios narrated by Raekwon and Ghostface. Wu-Tang has never been accused of choosing style over substance, but The W is shot through with a grim, almost elegiac feel. RZA digs way down to the blues roots for the intro loop of “Conditioner,” a verbal cartoon featuring none other than Ol’ Dirty Bastard trading lines with Snoop Dogg, and The W’s standout track, “Let My Niggas Live,” is about as noir as they come. Bass-heavy and somnolent, “Niggas” wobbles like a drunk on a tightrope, with Raekwon and guest rapper Nas handling the lyrical work.

As a matter of fact, the only problem with The W is the number of adjunct rappers. Method Man and Redman trade lines on “One Blood Under W,” a cross-bred hiphop/dancehall cut that features Junior Reid on vocals. Busta Rhymes pitches rhymes with Raekwon and GZA on the elliptical, horn-driven “The Monument.” Shoot, RZA even drags Isaac Hayes into the mix and gets Black Moses to growl couplets on the tail end of “I Can’t Go to Sleep.” But because the Wu-Tang aesthetic is so eccentric, singular, and fingerprinted, the hired guns on The W come off as distractions.

Guest stars notwithstanding, The W works because, hey, the Wu is infallible. Raise a skeptical eyebrow if you want, but RZA & Co.’s number is nowhere close to being up. Seven years into the game, Wu-Tang still has the sharpest swords in Shaolin. CP