Out There

Wu-Tang for now

Bobby Digital in Stereo
Gee Street/V2

Tical 2000: Judgement Day
Method Man
Def Jam

The Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), still stands as the best hip-hop album of the '90s, an album so perfect, even its creators have yet to figure it out. The album contained nine MCs tagging in and out over beats crisper than a fresh head of lettuce, cut-and-paste hip-hoperas (assembled by group founder The RZA) layered with murky samples, airport-lounge piano loops, and enough strings to keep a houseful of kittens happy. Since then, the brilliance of Enter the Wu-Tang has been tainted by a string of mediocre solo releases. Yet the latest two releases under the group's umbrella should reassert the Wu-Tang Clan's dominance; finally, the varsity reclaims the court from the JV.

Bobby Digital in Stereo demonstrates that the former Robert Diggs is the best hip-hop producer since the Bomb Squad blew apart. Even though The RZA has manned the boards for both Wu-Tang Clan full-lengths and most of the group's solo releases, it's clear he's always been holding back something for himself. Samples are chewed apart like taffy, poked and prodded until they can only be identified with dental records. Toy keyboards, plinking piano loops, and quivering violins are pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle--each fragment useless without the other--as loping bass lines and the boom-bap of a drum machine urge the song along. Everything's in the details, whether it's the hollow Portishead sample weaving its way through "Kiss of a Black Widow" or the robotic echo shadowing the chorus of "B.O.B.B.Y." Of course, The RZA's rhyme skills don't live up to his production savvy, but it hardly matters.

Method Man's sophomore disc, Tical 2000: Judgement Day, reveals just the opposite. Of the album's 28 tracks--including more skits than a few weeks of Saturday Night Live--only a handful can match his verbal ability, delivered in a charismatic, sandpaper-on-asphalt rasp. He tosses off pop-culture references like Dennis Miller, mixing in nods to everything from pro wrestler Lex Luger to Ben Casey, M.D. His inventive wordplay works even when the subject matter doesn't (see the pointless and out-of-place sex-rap "Sweet Love"), and his rhymes flow like the Mississippi during flood season. Yet none of the tracks--produced by Erick Sermon, True Master, and 4th Disciple--matches Method Man's vocals like "Bring the Pain" did on his 1994 debut, Tical. Only the furious "Judgement Day" comes close, its wailing siren and dance-floor beats capturing the urgency of his end-of-the-millennium lyrics. Which proves one thing: As good as Method Man and The RZA are separately, they're even better together.

--Zac Crain


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