Wu-Tang Killa Bees

The Swarm, Vol. 1

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The Wu-Tang sword is double-edged. On one side, there's no sense denying that the amorphous, ever-expanding crew has been responsible from some the best, most creative hip-hop in the '90s, yet it's also true that their impact has been diluted by a proliferation of side projects and solo albums. Even RZA's brilliant, menacingly minimalist production loses its bite through repetition, and that's what hurts the otherwise fine The Swarm, Vol. 1. The Wu Tang Killa Bees are foot soldiers in the Shaolin army -- they're not among the elite, they're newly adopted members of the Wu Family. Usually, the Wu-Tang name is enough to guarantee a hit, but to ensure sales, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna and Inspectah Deck were all brought in for a couple of tracks. As a result, The Swarm really feels no different than any of the Wu albums since Ghostface Killah's Iron Man -- it's the same mix of dirty beats, skeletal strings, hackneyed martial arts metaphors and B-movie samples. It sounds as good as it ever did, but it no longer has the element of surprise or ominous tension that made the first handful of Wu-Tang records so compelling. And that's not the fault of the Ruthless Bastards, A.I.G., Shyheim or any of the new members of the family -- if it's anyone's fault, it's RZA's, since neither he nor his associates D.B. Allah and Mathematics have found a way to expand his signature sound. It still provides pleasure, but not surprises -- unfortunately, one of the pleasures of the Wu-Tang Clan was its ability to surprise, and without that, they no longer seem quite as majestic as they once were.

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