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Shaolin Assassins: Bin Laden better watch his back.

Wu World Order

Four albums deep and entering their 30s, are the Wu-Tang Clan killer bees losing their sting? Not a Ghostface of a chance.

By Oliver Wang

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE the Wu-Tang Clan as hip-hop's elder statesmen, but on an album, Iron Flag (Loud), whose cover image deliberately restages the U.S. Marines' taking of Iwo Jima, here's Ghostface Killah (a.k.a., Tony Starks), screaming on the Sept. 11 terrorists for "The Rules": "Who the fuck knocked our buildings down?/ Who the man behind the World Trade massacre?/ Step up now." Forget Tony for mayor--as advance copies of his Bulletproof Wallets (Epic) promoted--let's see him go for the presidency.

Apart from the hawkish bravado, what's impressive about the Wu clique is that even though they're aging--and by aging, I only mean that most of their members are now in their early 30s--they've held firm to the same set of aesthetics they began with.

While younger peers like Ludacris and Fabulous are busy with elbow-throwing party anthems and pretty thug couture, the Wu stay the course, dropping daisy-chain bombs of braggadocio coded in Navajo deep cipher-listics. That their music invokes metaphoric comparisons to warfare isn't just a reflection of current events, it's also an acknowledgment that almost every song the Wu record sounds as if they're about to step into a fight, looking to knock you out before you even knew what hit you.

Of their four group albums, Iron Flag comes closest to duplicating the dystopian tension of their first, 1993's Enter the 36 Chambers. Unlike last year's The W--a cool set of puzzle pieces in search of a jigsaw--Iron Flag feels far less random or disjointed. What unifies the CD is the urgent, agitated intensity that courses throughout, built from both Rza and his acolytes' raucous rhythms and the group's volatile lyrical chemistry.

The whole album has a rhythm to it, a bob-and-weave quality that can be maddeningly inconsistent at times--watch the stumbles on the R&B-dipped "Chrome Wheels" and "One of These Days"--but strikes with unexpected ferocity when it needs to. On "Radioactive," for example, Gza, Raekwon, Method Man and Masta Killa unload a full clip of verses perfectly complemented by Rza's klaxon alarms and video-game gun blasts that pan across the background.

One interesting development is that as the Wu mature, it's clear who the first-string MCs are compared to those often left warming the bench. U-God and Masta Killa are practically inconsequential, Raekwon is just holding par and although Inspectah Deck has been the group's reigning master of metaphor, he's starting to lose bite. Gza still sounds as grave as ever (this is a good thing), but even his baritone can't compete with that of Method Man's--by far the most charismatic of the group with his honey-sweet, velvet-smooth flow.

Yet hoisting Iron Flag the highest is Ghostface Killah. On Iron Flag, he's stormin' like Norman, not only telling Dubya: "Move over, Mr. Bush/ I'm in charge of the war" but also igniting every song he touches. Ghost is a relentless gale force of rhymes as he moves through songs like "Soul Power," "The Rules," "Babies" and "Pinkie Ring," firing off a double-barrel of buckshot rhymes that don't always make sense but always hit on target.

While Iron Flag is a good Wu-Tang album, Ghost's Bulletproof Wallets manages to be better--this despite hitting serious potholes with unnecessary, distracting skits and "Never Be the Same," an R. Kelly-cloned anti-love ballad that's easily one of the worst songs anyone in the Wu has ever released.

Though Bulletproof Wallets isn't the career achievement that Ghost's 2000 Supreme Clientele was, it still has plenty of appeal, and one large reason is that, unlike the tension-mounting aesthetic approach that other Wu members take, Ghost is all about release. Words spill forth from him like a broken bottle, and his voice always seems poised at the edge of hysteria.

On "The Forest," he crafts an imagined world out of wayward cartoon characters--i.e., "Shaggy shot dead in his hoodie"--while for "Strawberry," he unleashes one of the most brazen, brilliant and ignorant sex rhymes of the year: "Comin' for days/ Wettin' your cage/ My dick is a sprinkler/ or maybe a douche/ I'm here to save the day."

Ghost's team of producers--again, led by Rza--complement him with equally excitable music ranging from such extremes as the dark, funk thunder of "Strawberry" to the airy, nostalgic sweetness of "Love Session," but he could spit a capella and still turn heads. For those looking for compelling reasons to pick up either or both Iron Flag and Bulletproof Wallets, all you need is one: the garrulous Ghostface Killah.

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From the January 17-23, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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