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Wu-Tang Clan 

Iron Flag (Loud)

What makes the Wu-Tang Clan so distinctive is that it embraces confusion in a genre that normally ducks it like the reefer-mad Method Man ducks urine tests. After all, hip-hop has long taken pride in being direct. "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin'," Public Enemy's Chuck D spat in the late '80s, epitomizing hip-hop's former emphasis on the clear presentation of knowledge and viewpoint.

But as rap became increasingly commercialized in the early '90s, the Wu sought to bring things back underground and add some ambiguity to the form. Boasting nine quixotic rhymers (each with a phone book of pseudonyms), arcane kung-fu references, and a half-assed numerology, the Wu possessed an unprecedented affinity for keeping rap audiences guessing.

This fondness for perplexity is manifested on Iron Flag. After buoying last year's superb The W with a handful of guest MCs for the first time, the Wu scales things back on Flag, with only Flavor Fav adding some convulsive, Ritalin-deficient shouts on "Soul Power" and Ron Isley lending his satin voice to "Back in the Game." Also absent is Cappadonna, the longtime unofficial 10th member of the Wu, who didn't even make the band photo this time around.

The result of this circling of the wagons is perhaps the Wu's most consistent effort since its debut. This isn't to suggest that the disc is without its shortcomings. "Iron Flag" bears more than a passing resemblance to Wu-Tang Forever's "Scary Hours," while "Dashing" is yet another failed stab at ghetto humor that's destined to take its place alongside "Conditioner" and "Dog Shit" among the band's most forgettable cuts. Nevertheless, the Wu's scintillating, septic soul seeps through this disc. Combined with the group's lyrical shadowboxing, it makes for an album as bewildering as it is booming and demonstrates that's there's really nothing these guys are afraid of. Except, maybe, for peeing in plastic cups.

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