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1999 is, perhaps, Wu-Tang Clan’s last chance. When the group dropped its classic sophomore effort, Wu-Tang Forever, two years ago, critics and heads alike (including this one) anointed Wu-Tang the hiphop messiah. Forever shot up the charts; Wu-Tang had made the rare rap album that both was good and sold well. Wise men become addicts to success; fools, like Wu-Tang, simply get drunk off it. First the group had to forfeit a tour with Rage Against the Machine, citing internal disagreements. Then some of the group’s members assaulted a promoter from their record label. Resident bad boy Ol’ Dirty Bastard embarrassed the entire group by storming the stage at the ’98 Grammy Awards and dissing Puff Daddy. Since then, ODB has been busted for possession of crack.

The sideshows might have helped had members of the group not gone on to release horrid solo projects. RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo was just plain strange, and Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgment Day, with its cameos running the gamut from Left Eye to Donald Trump, sounded as if there were no MCs at the helm. In the two years since Forever, rap fans have heard nothing of note from Wu-Tang Clan and plenty that they’d rather not speak about.

It’s tempting to attribute the Clan’s decline to producer RZA’s cutting back his workload. In the early to mid-’90s, RZA mastered five classic albums, from 1993’s quintessentially dirty Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers to Raekwon’s mesmerizing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995). Since Wu-Tang Forever’s release, RZA hasn’t produced an album for anyone except himself.

With their latest releases, Wu-Tang members GZA/Genius and Inspecta Deck become the latest casualties of RZA’s conspicuous absence from the boards. The status of these two as Wu-Tang’s best lyricists only magnifies the tragedy of GZA’s Beneath the Surface and Inspecta Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance.

GZA’s first release under the Wu-Tang banner, 1995’s Liquid Swords, has become a classic. Its darkness provided the perfect counterpoint to rap’s growing ostentation. Bangers like the title track, “Cold World,” “Gold,” and “Shadowboxin’” revealed that GZA possessed one of rap’s illest flows and wrote some of its greatest lyrics. Behind the boards, RZA used warped hooks from Stevie Wonder ballads and skits from Kung Fu flicks.

To describe Beneath the Surface as a successor to Liquid Swords is to give the album too much credit. Surface begins badly: The first cut features a bass-heavy voice announcing, “[A]nother jewel from the man who bought you Liquid Swords….He now takes you beneath the surface!” Liquid Swords needed no such pomp; great art never has to tell you that it’s great. But bad art uses all sorts of devices to hide its weaknesses.

Surface has many problems, but GZA is not one of them. His MCing on the record certainly does not rate above his exhibitions on Liquid Swords, but it is still far superior to that of DMX, or even Jay-Z. GZA is a master of surrealism, and, like Swords, Surface bombs the listener with wild imagery: “Everything I thought of I saw it happen/Then I rose from the soil, the sun blackened….Your physical shatters from the blast/Pyroclastic flow sets forth a tower of ash….Even wearing camouflage, you’re analogue,” GZA raps in “Amplified Sample.”

But although there’s enough fancy poetry to go around, Surface is repeatedly hobbled by the men behind the boards. With the production left principally to RZA disciples Mathematics and Arabian Knight, GZA is left to rhyme over insultingly simplistic tracks—RZA’s students possess not even one iota of his spontaneity. What results is a surpassingly bad album. An MC can only be so much better than the track he’s rhyming over.

Inspecta Deck’s opening verse on Wu-Tang’s “Triumph” nearly ruined the song, because no one else on the cut managed to even come close to his contribution. Like GZA, Deck is a direct descendant of Rakim, favoring cosmological and biblical allusions. Since Forever, he’s done cameos with Big Punisher, Gang Starr, and Pete Rock, and has bested them all, establishing himself not only as one of Wu-Tang’s, but also as one of hiphop’s, best MCs. MTV has latched on to RZA and Method Man as the true Wu-Tang heroes, but, next to GZA, Inspecta Deck is the most gifted lyricist in the clan.

Uncontrolled Substance covers ground that Deck has clearly mastered—battle rhymes and critiques of inner-city life. More important, the album takes risks by having Deck expand into unlikely hiphop party fare and love ballads, which provide some of the album’s better moments.

Chief among them are “Movers and Shakers.” The hook is clearly aimed at crossing over—not out of the underground, but into the party circuit. But while lesser MCs (read: Nas) skimp on lyrics when it comes to party tracks, Deck laces “Movers and Shakers” with the type of lyrical efficiency that was once Wu-Tang’s calling card. “This style has no origin or birthdate/And scientist research cannot calculate/The great mind, skating through space and time/Vibrating through the baseline to stun mankind.”

He’s less successful when he moves into ballads, but it’s a bold move considering that the last attempt by Wu-Tang, “Black Shampoo,” was disastrous. On “Lovin’ You,” Deck weaves a simple story about falling for a woman who’s already involved. It’s an old tale, frequently repeated in hiphop. But what sets Deck’s story apart is that the woman in his narrative is not simply a piece of property used to emasculate her significant other. Deck manages to write clever couplets, although the cut is marred by a cameo from La the Darkman.

But Deck remains at his best returning to battle rhymes and political commentary. The album’s best cut, “Show and Prove,” continues in the spirit of Wu-Tang’s frequent attacks on organized Christianity: “I once asked God to forgive me for my sins/Bent on my knees pleading to be heavenly cleansed/Said the Holy Ghost will change the ways and actions of men/When I stood I felt the same as if I just walked in.”

Deck’s tracks aren’t as bad as GZA’s, though the album falls short for the same reasons that Surface does. Deck’s producers have a good ear for samples but fail to layer the tracks with the care that RZA usually puts into his work. So you get cuts with interesting horn riffs and some standard drums—but nothing else. There are no weird women whispering, “I wanna love you,” as on Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse,” no angry sirens like those on Ghostface Killah’s “Iron Maiden.” The tracks aren’t as bad as the cotton-candy production of Swizz Beatz, but, whereas RZA once served up Italian subs, Deck’s producers give you cheese sandwiches. All of which raises the question: Where the hell is RZA? Without him—and there is no pretty way to say this—Wu-Tang Clan is in trouble. CP