Searching for the Perfect Beat

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The members of Wu-Tang are streetcorner scientists, experimenting, theorizing, pushing back the limits of what's possible in hip-hop. The phrase "experimental music" usually suggests that the work in question is somehow hard to enjoy and impossible to understand. Wu-Tang's lyrics and intentions can be perversely oblique, but their music manages to be both experimental and populist at the same time. Wu-Tang's songs have the loose but intricate feel of late-night jazz jams — they're artfully crafted but emotionally raw.

The band's 1993 debut album, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" was rough and rambling, combining ragged street beats with lyrical imagery and audio samples drawn from Hong Kong martial arts flicks. At a time when West Coast gangsta rap was dominating the hip-hop scene, the arrival of the Staten Island, New York-based Wu-Tang announced that the East Coast was not to be ignored. The group's last major album, the ambitious 1997 double album "Wu-Tang Forever," was a challenging, complex work of urban sprawl, spilling over with rude wordplay, goofy ideas, bad attitude and mumbled philosophy. Their work was like an overpopulated metropolitan center, pot-holed, traffic — clogged, but full of energy and promise.

Wu-Tang's new release, "The W," finds the group at its most focused. It's an unusual place for them to be. Wu-Tang revels in its own unpredictability, its own inscrutability and its own ungainly nature. Wu-Tang is a conglomeration of rappers that includes RZA (the mastermind and main producer), Method Man (the star MC), Masta Killa, U-God, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, GZA, Ghostface Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard. A tenth rapper, Cappadonna, is regarded as an honorary member. While other groups rage and split and fall apart when members look to release solo work, Wu-Tang's boundaries are loose. All of the members have authored solo albums at one time or another; RZA, for his part, composed the music for the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film "Ghost Dog."

The W is loaded with guest stars. Snoop Dogg adds his sly southern drawl to "Conditioner," Nas contributes a few apocalyptic rhymes to "Let My Niggas Live," and soulman Isaac Hayes makes an appearance (along with a sample of his 1969 cover version of "Walk On By") on "I Can't Go to Sleep."

RZA is in top form as a producer, laying down beats for each number that are spare but never simplistic, and that reverberate with menace, like footsteps following you down an alleyway late at night. The verbal flow on the album is involving and smooth; there's a smart mix of jokey lines ("In a room full of crackers/ I might cut the cheese," runs one passage on the track "Redbull") and serious statements. One section on "I Can't Go to Sleep" laments "Somebody raped our women/ murdered our babies/ hit us with the crack and guns/ in the early '80s."

With numerous Wu-Tang Clan members popping up on various tracks and all those guest stars, The W becomes a terrifically varied album, full of differing vocal textures and provocative rhythmic and lyrical ideas. Guest star-heavy albums sometimes burst apart like overstuffed grocery bags. RZA's solid guidance keeps everything together. The streetcorner scientists of Wu-Tang have come up with another winning formula.