Only one thing hurts more than the stripy, splenetic insects which the Wu-Tang Clan frequently warn are flying our way ...

ONLY ONE THING HURTS MORE than the stripy, splenetic insects which the Wu-Tang Clan frequently warn are flying our way. That’s RZA cracking his whip, cancelling all tea breaks, holiday leave and, indeed, live performances to ensure his mob release a new album before we’ve even finished listening to the previous one. Recently, this has led to LPs on which essential tracks have been in a desperate minority, but you’d think RZA is wily enough to reserve a gamut of bona fide jaw-droppers for what is, effectively, his own album.

Apparently not. ‘The Swarm’ boasts myriad established vocalists – Raekwon, Method Man, Cappadonna, Ghostface Killah – plus such protigis as Sunz Of Man. The artwork features a variety of murderous bees, all representing different members of the Clan. But musically, such range and variety hardly get a look in.

Having more or less abandoned the out-and-out firebrand [I]|ber-[/I]noize end of their canon, and never having held much truck with pacey, funky fare, the Wu again resort to their favoured realm of strangulated samples, loping beats and circuitous vocals. Reasonable news when Sunz Of Man display nicely menacing form on the almost catchy ‘Concrete Man’, though sorely testing when Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Street Life and Mastakilla grumble blandly through ‘Execute Them’.

And it’s clear RZA needs a vacation as much as the rappers. Perhaps then, the man responsible for the decade’s most distinctive hip-hop sound could turn convention on its head again, working from an entirely new angle of attack. In the meantime, the fractious blueprint at the heart of tracks like ‘And Justice For All’ sounds as creaky and cobweb-covered as the spooky samples.

The chief saving grace of ‘The Swarm’ is that the newcomers are understandably disinclined to switch to auto-cruise yet. Though a track called ‘Bastards’ by the Ruthless Bastards may not sound promising, it is in fact as graceful and dextrous as things get. Most significant in the current freezing of Wu-Tang’s trajectory between further glory and creeping decline, is that they’re no longer the only hip-hop crew worth getting excited about. The enemy is the [I]”rap and bullshit”[/I] of Puff Daddy and Co, RZA often bemoans, but now everyone from Jurassic 5 to Mos Def to Company Flow are skilfully and refreshingly snapping away at the reign of the playaz.

RZA needs to drop his whip, don his thinking cap and get back to the front of the game, before this ‘Swarm…’ loses its buzz entirely.