Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA has long been a vocal supporter of the conspiracy-minded Nation Of Islam offshoot Five Percent Nation. Like most proponents of conspiracy theories, the group attempts to find logic in chaos, viewing the oppression and degradation of blacks as the result of an ages-old supernatural plot. A similar dynamic can be found in Wu-Tang Clan's revolutionary 1993 debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), as RZA concocted an elaborate mythology that re-imagined the random violence of urban life as the continuation of a timeless struggle for honor and dignity informed equally by kung-fu movies and Five Percent rhetoric. Enter The Wu-Tang revolutionized hip-hop on an artistic and professional level, in addition to introducing an assortment of colorful characters: mad-genius producer RZA, the offbeat and charismatic Method Man, and demented comic-relief artist Ol' Dirty Bastard. The sprawling, two-disc 1997 album Wu-Tang Forever expanded on, and in some ways improved upon, its predecessor's narrative themes and innovative production before collapsing under its sheer volume and weighty ambition. Although roughly half as long as Wu-Tang Forever, The W is every bit as erratic and overreaching. If Forever was a great single album hidden in a messy two-disc set, The W feels like a good six-song EP nestled inside an uneven album that seems to take its cues from the half-assed weirdness of ODB's N**** Please. The perpetually troubled ODB is largely absent from The W, popping up only on "MC Conditioner," an anti-climactic duet with Snoop Dogg that sounds like it was recorded in a cloud of reefer smoke on the way back to rehab. ODB's absence is keenly felt throughout The W; RZA may be the brains, and Method Man the leading man, but ODB was in many ways the soul of the group, and The W feels incomplete without him. The downbeat tearjerker has long been a Wu-Tang specialty, and many of The W's best songs convey a melancholy sadness both personal and political, from the Isaac Hayes-assisted "I Can't Go To Sleep" to the mournful "Jah World," which laments the suffering of blacks from the days of slavery to the present. But all is not misery and suffering in Wu-world, as evidenced by propulsive, irresistibly upbeat tracks like "Do You Really (Thang, Thang)," "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)," and the terrific "Gravel Pit," which derives much of its swaggering power from the sinister Enter The Dragon sample that De La Soul rocked memorably on "Oooh." Much of the album's remainder feels undeniably off, however, undermined by intrusive, Swizz Beatz-style synth lines, lazy rhymes, and forgettable guest turns. Neither the triumphant return fans hoped for nor the embarrassment some feared, The W feels like the work of a group still struggling to make order out of chaos without being swallowed up by it.

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