The Wu-Tang Clan had three years to make The W, the follow-up to its 1997 double-disc opus Wu-Tang Forever, yet there's still an oddly disjointed, hurried, and unfinished feel about the album. Look no further than resident nut Ol' Dirty Bastard's sole contribution, "Conditioner." It literally sounds phoned in, as ODB repeats the same phrase over and over while guest Snoop Dogg holds up the center. There are no photos of ODB -- who recently skipped town prior to a hearing regarding his rehab progress and is officially MIA -- in the CD's liner notes or on the cover, and he's not mentioned in publicity material, either. The W is sort of the musical equivalent of his continuing saga.
And it isn't so much that this often-messy album, the 10-member collective's third, strays too far from Wu's home ground. It doesn't. And that's the main problem. Producer RZA piles on the creepy minor-chord hymns, and the group's core rappers -- Raekwon and Method Man -- toss off some good lines. But you've heard it all before. Wu's spotty 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), set up the N.Y.C. crew as a forcefully individual outfit capable of working surprisingly well together. Wu-Tang Forever allowed the band and its members to play out for more than two hours. The W grinds in place, never quite bolstering the collective authority. Tracks for the album were started in Los Angeles, but RZA eventually took the entire project back to his basement studio in Staten Island. Perhaps the pressure to deliver got to him. There are fleeting moments of brilliance: "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" is classic Wu style, all skulking and menacing beats with a nod to Public Enemy, and the funky "Gravel Pit" is the most tuneful thing they've ever done. Alas, the rest is mostly just a hearty, heaping serving of leftovers.