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Wu-Tang Clan has seen this movie before. In 1993, when the group bum-rushed the music industry with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), rapdom was in disarray. The golden age of black nationalist rap was dead, and gangsta rap exhorted the virtues of gats over sampled funk tracks. The breakup of Eric B and Rakim, EPMD, X-Clan, and Boogie Down Productions, as well as the subpar efforts of Public Enemy, left a hole the size of Andromeda, into which stepped a bevy of kindergarten lyricists. We went from rap gods like Rakim and Chuck D to mortals like DJ Quik, Coolio, and the Afros.

Then came Wu, but it wasn’t alone: Nas, Black Moon, the Roots, and even Biggie all did their part to resurrect the lost art. Nostalgia characterized 36 Chambers. “Remember back in the day,” Wu-Tang captain Rza would reminisce, “’87, ’88, that was my favorite shit, god.” 36 Chambers didn’t sound like PE or Rakim, but it still took you back to a time when rugged beats and phat lyrics were all you believed mattered.

Fast forward a few years, and you see that a savior’s job is never done. Rapdom is once again in disarray. Its biggest money-makers are dead. Even when alive, Tupac and Biggie, while bringing in the bucks, did very little to advance the state of the art. Death Row, once hiphop’s top-selling label, is slated to do its best imitation of the Titanic. And this is just the financial end of things.

Creativity is a dinosaur. Nas, while still the most prolific lyricist in hiphop, is seemingly headed the way of Big Daddy Kane. The Boot Camp click gave its production squad, the Beatminerz, the heave ho and subsequently offered up one of the most disappointing albums of the year. Even old standard-bearers like KRS-One have come up shaky.

Out West, the Alkoholiks and their Likwid crew are holding things down. In the South, Goodie Mob and Outkast are gallantly attempting to do the same. And in Philly, the Roots are doing their part. But the empire is crumbling from the inside. It needs saviors now, and only one group has both the commercial appeal and artistic credibility to do it. On Wu-Tang Forever, the Rza says as much: “We return like Jesus/When the whole world need us.”

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The difference between Wu-Tang’s first album and its second is the difference between a club and a sword. They can both kill, but one is better honed and consequently more economic and artistic. 36 Chambers was pure energy, a seemingly endless stream of spine-wrenching beats and pimp-slapping lyrics. It was also uncontrolled: Ghostface Killah exhibited an utter disrespect for the science of flow, while the Rza’s tracks sometimes got mired in the doldrums of repetition.

But the album was as unstoppable as it was undisciplined; it reached into your midriff and took hold of something that made you instinctively nod your head and mutter, “That’s the shit.” It was like Michael Jordan dunking on Manute Bol. Forever offers the same energy, but it’s tempered, precise, and equally unstoppable. Where 36 Chambers was a series of dunks, Forever is a few dunks here, a few three-pointers there, and a deadly fadeaway everywhere.

Begin with the Rza’s absurdist production: An instrumental version of Forever could be the soundtrack to Frankenstein. This kid pulls samples from everywhere: a child’s garbled voice, the clanging of swords, aimless conversation, a piercing whistle. And from it all he constructs the set for Forever’s theatrics, a patchwork cityscape of aural turbulence. The Rza delights in taking apparent opposites and making them kissing cousins.

There’s “Reunited,” which maintains the bread and butter of hiphop: a hard-nosed breakbeat and bass line. But there is also a sung hook, something avoided by many underground producers, lest their hard-core badges be revoked. And then there are the violins, not looped over and over, but surging and ebbing throughout the track and at the end breaking off a funky-ass solo. There’s “Bells of War,” which includes an irrelevant conversation about boxing in the middle of the track that somehow adds to the eerie mood of the song. The first single, “Triumph,” switches the track no fewer than four times. The only constant is the booming bass line, which sets the tone for Wu-Tang’s war march. Wu-World’s backdrop is cacophonous, dissonant, lovely.

While the production sets the scene, the lyrics fill out the players. In this department, Method Man and Inspectah Deck shine the mightiest. Meth is cut straight from the mold of the traditional shit-talking MC. He is the archetypical hard-rock: “It’s court-adjourned for the bad seed from bad sperm/Herb got my wig fried like a bad perm.” He prefers snappy one-liners to extended metaphors and concepts: “Silence, as I rock when I strike targets/Verbals, be screaming on ya like a drill sergeant.” Meth also has the illest sense of rhythm in the Clan. At times, his whiskey-tinged rasp rides the Rza’s tracks like a monorail, while at other times he dances in and out of the bars.

The oft slept-on Inspectah Deck should be slated for the next solo project: “I bomb atomically/Socrates philosophies and hypotheses/Can’t define how I be droppin’ these.” Deck combines Meth’s gift for one-liners but adds a bit more intellectualizing, a bit less machismo, and labyrinthlike rhyme schemes: “My rap style swing like Willie Mays/My eyes purple haze, my solar rays burn through shades/Rhyme grenades raid the airwaves, catch this rap page/I glide like hover-crafts on the Everglades.”

To its credit, Forever offers a myriad of rhyme styles. There are the sinister ponderings of the Gza and Masta Killa, the stream-of-consciousness rhyming of Ghostface Killah, U-God, and Raekwon, the straight-shooting of Method Man and Inspectah Deck, and the predictable absurdity of Old Dirty Bastard. A cast of characters seemingly bound for discord but instead connecting like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Perhaps their only drawback is the misogyny that permeates the lyrics of Dirty and the Rza. On his solo album Ironman, Ghost earned the distinction of authoring “Wildflower,” perhaps the most sexist rap cut ever. In an attempt to wrest the crown from Ghost, Dirty offers up a plethora of bitches and hos, particularly on the cut “Dog Shit.” On an album so replete with such high artistry, Dirty’s sexist lyrics are akin to a Doberman pissing on the Mona Lisa.

Wu-Tang Forever is perhaps the most dynamic rap album since Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but it’s not up against much competition. Consider that in 1988, when PE dropped Nation, no fewer than five other hiphop classics were released, including EPMD’s Strictly Business, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Slick Rick’s The Adventures of Slick Rick, BDP’s By Any Means Necessary, and Eric B and Rakim’s Follow the Leader. You don’t have to go far out on a limb to say that ’96 and ’97 combined couldn’t rival that lineup.

The point is that despite the fact that PE produced the tightest album that year (maybe the tightest album ever), there was competition right at its heels. But as a group, Wu-Tang is simply unprecedented. In addition to brandishing a gang of talented lyricists, Wu-Tang steadily offers new talent on almost every album. This time around, the appointed prodigy is Street Life: “Slam cats like Bam-Bam Bigelow/Throw a flow like Nommo, relate like Fidel Castro/I be the great All-Pro, hangin MCs by they logo/My street journal react and blaze like an inferno.”

Wu-Tang has no competition save itself. It is the dominant click in hiphop, and everything after it (the Roots, the Alkoholiks, Def Squad, Boot Camp, Outkast) is a cloud of crews battling for a distant second. Some would say Wu-Tang is a breath of fresh air or an effective counterstrike against forces of blatant and untempered commercialism, but it is also a desperate gasp of creativity, a last stand against the overwhelming forces of anti-artistry. What is clear is that Wu has raised the bar, and for the sake of hiphop, the other clicks better at least try and touch it.CP