So it is that the Wu-Tang Clan find themselves with the future of rap quite literally in their hands. Having postponed its appearance for several years while the various Clansmen fed the group's mystique via a blizzard of solo albums, their second album, Wu-Tang Forever, is the most eagerly anticipated rap record since Public Enemy's heyday. Can they possibly rescue an increasingly threadbare genre?
It appears so. Swollen to an outsize 29-track double-album, with each track averaging around four minutes, Wu-Tang Forever is the most monumental rap album yet produced, a tour de force tirade of verbal dexterity. It is everything you expect a rap record to be - angry, sexy, dangerous, sly, loquacious, funny, journalistic and frequently obscene - and much more than that. In places, it is quite baffling, as the Clan's nine rappers and young proteges such as CappaDonna unleash wave after wave of dazzling verbals.
The group's intentions are laid out in the opening "Wu Revolution", a pseudo-religious sermon which abjures absolute notions of good and evil in favour of more malleable assessments. Instead of hymning the gangsta lifestyle, subsequent tracks make a serious call to creative redemption.
Most of the tracks are produced by The RZA, whose "noise and beats" style blends martial-arts soundtrack samples, short breakbeats, spooky two-note keyboard figures and eerie string flourishes in tight, repetitive loops. The effect is of a terrible stasis, of teetering on a perpetual cusp of anticipation with no possibility of resolution. It is the bleakest sound in modern music, every bit as evocative of social entropy as the rappers' words. For rap, the future starts here.