What the hell is going on with hip-hop right about now? Rap‘s most popular, most talented MC — at one point in the running to grace the cover of Time as Person of the Year — is a white kid from a Detroit trailer park. Capitalizing on a singsong, nursery-school-rhyme style, newcomer Nelly has moved more than 5 million records for the cause of Southern rap domination. And hip-hop videos, skin-factored to the nth degree from clips like Q-Tip’s ”Vivrant Thing“ of late last year, all bared enough booty to qualify for the Playboy Channel‘s uncensored Hot Rocks music-video show. Also, a lot of dancing seemed to be going down in 2000, and Sean Combs wasn’t responsible for any of it. (Blame Mystikal, Ludacris and the Cash Money Millionaires of the South.) What gives?

”It‘s probably what the girls want,“ says the Wu-Tang Clan’s chief sound sculptor, RZA. ”That‘s the way things is geared to sell to people. And the cats gonna follow what the girls is doing. That’s how I see it.“ Introducing their The W with upbeat lead singles like ”Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)“ and ”Gravel Pit,“ Wu-Tang seem to be following in step with hip-hop party people nationwide. But if women traditionally lead that mad dash to the dance floor, what of the male hip-hop fiends who canonized Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to classic status, and rhapsodically rewound Wu-Tang Forever to decipher the labyrinthine Wu rhyme schemes?

”We got a certain type of audience,“ Wu rapper Raekwon allows. ”We like a real nigga group, where you look for more than entertainment — you look for knowledge. Right now, it‘s more of a dancing zone; they in a happy feeling. Before, when hip-hop first started, we more or less brought education to the shit: jewels, entertainment, all of that. So this is what’s going on right now.“

The W is a solid, respectable, even enjoyable Wu-Tang Clan album, despite itself. Never before have guest MCs been invited to a Wu affair, yet here they are: Busta Rhymes (”The Monument“), Snoop Dogg (”Conditioner,“ the sole track featuring lines from comical parolee Ol‘ Dirty Bastard), Redman (”Redbull“) and Nas (on the superlative ”Let My Niggas Live“). The absence of overabundant Five Percent Nation metaphysics, the up-tempo beats on tracks like ”Do You Really (Thang, Thang),“ and the assistance of Junior Reid and even Isaac Hayes all suggest Wu-Tang catering to a populist agenda. And while the results are on point, they still hint at an uncertainty on the part of RZA & Co. as to where they stand in the wacky world of hip-hop 2001.

”To me, motherfuckers is so crazy, ’cause sometimes they really don‘t know what they want,“ Raekwon says of the rap audience. ”You give ’em an overdose and they don‘t want that much,“ he says, undoubtedly referencing the maligned-as-overblown double album Wu-Tang Forever. ”Then you give ’em a little, and they want a lot. So it‘s just gon’ be like that, man. Right now, it‘s just about self-preservation, and making sure we do what we gotta do.“ Wu’s Inspectah Deck remarks, ”Sometimes you gotta stoop to a cat‘s level in order to reach him.“

Ghostface Killah has a lump in his throat throughout The W, lending a deeper emotional level (and theatricality) to ”Jah World“ (”They threw burners in our babies’ facesPale hands that looked scary touched our bodies in the strangest places“) and ”I Can‘t Go to Sleep.“ On the latter, structured around the string arrangement to Isaac Hayes’ 1969 ”Walk On By,“ Ghost rhymes, ”Somebody raped our women, murdered our babiesHit us with the cracks and guns in the early ‘80s“ with all the melancholy and tear-jerked desperation of a blues singer.

The W offers even more. On ”Let My Niggas Live,“ guest star Nas lets off a rhyme that hangs together as well as the infamous ”Live at the BBQ“ verse with Main Source that launched his career; it also boasts the album’s best groove, at once agitated and chilling. Method Man comes off lyrically on the hidden track, probably titled ”Clap.“ Initially, The W sounds good but not great. But ultimately, you grow accustomed to the sound RZA thinks the Wu needs to win in 2001, and you go ahead and get with it.

”A lot of that negative shit usually comes from the media,“ says Wu‘s GZA. ”We just came off the road doing shows back to back, night after night, and those shows was packed. They never lost faith. Those motherfuckers are still there. It’s all secondhand shit: ‘My man said his man didn’t like the album.‘ It’s always some shit like that.“

Don‘t believe the hype. The W is slightly more simplified, sonically and lyrically, than previous Wu fare. But for wherever hip-hop is going right now, this Wu-Tang 2001 model is more than souped-up enough to get you there.

LA Weekly