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Back From the Future

On The W, the famously inventive Wu-Tang Clan slows down for a victory lap around the old school, but their retread beats don't make the grade.

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From the time Run-D.M.C. proclaimed themselves the "kings of rock," hip-hop's house has been built on a foundation of brags and boasts. But thanks to the proliferation of hip-hop media, which spreads the word separating the wicked from the wack, self-criticism is slowly becoming a fixture as well. On his new single, Queens rapper Noreaga apologizes for his ill-conceived solo album, and Canibus spends part of his new album acknowledging the shortcomings of his overhyped debut (though he blames them largely on his mentor, Wyclef Jean).

It's not as explicit, but the Wu-Tang Clan's new album, The W (Loud/Sony), could be interpreted as their own mea culpa for their portentous double album, Wu-Tang Forever. Without skits, gimmicks, or much in the way of innovation, the group reprises the sparse beats and chopsticky kung fu samples of their epochal debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It's an odd move for a group that's always prided itself on musical and lyrical futurism, especially because, in the years since Forever, they've spun off forward-looking solo albums like RZA's Bobby Digital and Ol' Dirty Bastard's hilariously off-kilter send-up of the genre's flashy players.

The W is the sort of back-to-basics album that rock bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones used to make when they felt they were losing touch with their audience. It's capable but uninspiring -- Wu by Numbers. Hard-core fans of the group will probably revel in production minutiae like the polyrhythmic snares on "Chamber Music," the sirenlike twang looped through "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)," and the blunt, artillery-like percussion of "Careful (Click, Click)." For everyone else, The W will seem like a safe lap around the old school from a group that once set the pace so many others followed.

In brief: The title of the first solo album from Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy, H.N.I.C (Loud/Infamous) -- an abbreviation for Head Nigga in Charge -- suggests the off-putting egoism of Jay-Z, but his rhymes have a sense of empathy, introspection, and consequence that's rare in hip-hop. "Don't forget your soul is involved," warns Prodigy in a thick, nasal Queens accent that's beginning to take on the authority of Rakim. "That same energy you put out comes right back and revolves." He doesn't deal in simplistic positivity, though: Prodigy's cautionary tales are backed by ornate soundscapes that make this rapper-producer the Ennio Morricone of hip-hop. . . . Talib Kweli and Hi Tek also take the high road on their debut, Reflection Eternal (Rawkus/Priority), even enlisting Gil Scott-Heron to deliver a shout-out. Like Prodigy, the duo is incisive enough to avoid coming off as preachy. "Where were you the day hip-hop died?" Kweli laments on "Too Late." But before smugly proclaiming its demise, he asks: "Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to rise?" Sincere and plainspoken, Kweli has one of the most unusual voices in hip-hop. And Hi Tek, who in the past unimaginatively recycled a Boogie Down Productions beat on Black Star's "Definition," comes fully into his own, from the warm, vibrating synths of "Some Kind of Wonderful" to the Fela Kuti-influenced Afro-funk of "Africa Dream." . . . Bass is often at the heart of the most innovative music, from the soul-rattling low ends of dub reggae to the rear-end-moving groove of Detroit ghetto-tech. On Wookie (Soul 2 Soul), the English dance-music producer (born Jason Chue) avoids the cold clinicalness of drum and bass by marrying futuristic bass lines with a warmer past. He spikes turgid bass lines with organ on "Down on Me," adds flamenco guitar to elastic bass on "Back Up Back Up Back Up," and puts spiritual emptiness -- "You lose your spirit at a cost and now your soul it will be lost," counsels vocalist Lain on "Battle" -- onto the dance floor. Like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins, Wookie is the rare producer who possesses awe-inspiring technical prowess as well as a sense of what makes people feel -- and dance.


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