Since 2000’s The W, the Wu-Tang Clan has descended from the fiercest emcee collective in history, to a group using its brand above skills to move albums from shelves. Whereas Iron Flag [click to read] took a dark, radio-defying turn, 8 Diagrams [click to read] lacked the sincerity and quality expected from a six year hiatus. Perhaps the biggest surprise yet at 2009’s halfway point, Wu-Tang Chamber Music comes not as true group effort (Masta Killa, GZA and Method Man have no involvement), but a RZA-helmed project with influential ’80s and ’90s emcees on the side, that is easily the best collective offering in nine or more years.

“Ill Figures” [click to listen] is an outstanding example of ’90s New York lyricism. Paired with Kool G Rap [click to read], one can hear side-by-side a primary source in Raekwon‘s [click to read] knack for cadence and slang. M.O.P. separates the mellow wordplay with anger and angst, as to be expected from Brownsville’s finest. “Kill Too Hard” is as upbeat as Wu ever gets, with Inspectah Deck [click to read] tearing through the live percussion with his superb timing and syncopated delivery that made the first and second renditions of “Protect Ya Neck” so lively. U-God [click to read] comes close behind, arguably having a career year, as demonstrated in his just-released Dopium effort [click to read], also boasting throwback deliveries. Another Juice Crew alum, this time Masta Ace [click to read] appears on the track, benefiting from the rugged company, and sounding more threatening than he has since he ripped High & Mighty a new one in 2001 on “Acknowledge.” These guest appearances break the inner circle traditionally impermeable on Wu releases, and from Sadat X [click to read] to AZ [click to read] to Havoc [click to read], all guests seemed to bring this project brutal reminders that the ’90s rhyme-ethic never left.

Beyond simply cool collaborations, it is a lot of personal attention that separated this work apart from Think Differently, Ghost Dog soundtrack, or other honest, but ultimately lukewarm Wu-Tang Music Group releases. Eerie interludes, crafted by the RZA with vocal samples and monologue mortar the songs nicely. These jewels help make this compilation feel like an album, and build towards the songs, a formula employed on the epic classic Enter The 36 Chambers 15 years ago. RZA also dusted off the rhyme book, and graces “NYC Crack” with a nostalgic entrance, and the kind of uncensored verse that returns the “Abbot” to New York subject matter, back from Hollywood hiatus.

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The primary upgrade on this project versus 8 Diagrams or Iron Flag is production. Although he shares duties with RZA, Fizzy Womack – better known as M.O.P.‘s Lil Fame deserves huge recognition for his co-production on seven of the album’s finest records. Repeatedly joined by Andrew Kelley, Noah Rubin and longtime Koch record exec Bob Perry, it’s truly unclear who is doing what. Still, the percussion elements are very much in the vein of the same sample kits RZA was employing on the early ’90s archetypal Wu material. Additionally, The Revelations, a ’70s-sounding Funk outfit give the brass and keys necessary to save on sample budgets altogether. A bit cleaner than RZA, the sound is most comparable to 1993’s “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber, Pt. 2.” Whether First Family, Revelations, or RZA on the track, this is a consistent Wu-Tang sound, belonging to one unit of producers – something that often felt lost in the a la carte duties of True Master and Mathematics in the last decade.

Wu-Tang Chamber Music is a lot deeper than a low-budget olive branch between the Brothers Wu and their onetime peers. Instead, this may indeed be the group’s life-blood, and formula to appease the loyal fans searching for both evolution and integrity. The Wu has never sounded so connected to their roots in Hip Hop and roots within themselves, for one of the sweetest surprises of this year.

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