Once upon a time way back in the early Nineties, a clan called Wu-Tang formed, with GZA "at the head." Two years after its seminal 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang, the Clan issued its twin classics: Method Man's Tical and GZA's Liquid Swords. Each album placed urban and kung-fu mythology over dark, soulful loops, with producer RZA arranging them in stunning feng shui fashion. For fans of raw hip-hop, it was a time of righteous giants roaming the airwaves, the blood of champagne-popper MCs dripping from their swords.

Those were the days before one Wu-Tang MC, Ol' Dirty Bastard, was locked up for being a maniac; before Redman, the Wu's Yoko Ono, stole Method Man away to do stoned music and film collaborations; and before GZA's shallow Beneath the Surface LP joined a dozen other Wu-affiliated albums in flooding the market. As new rap giants sprang from the dojos of Timbaland and the Neptunes, the old Wu heroes did tai chi in the shadows, apparently content to go through the motions. The Clan's war stories, dusky beats, and kung-fu movie samples still made for decent music, but they weren't killing anybody.

Like Nas's Stillmatic, GZA's latest release, Legend of the Liquid Sword, makes titular reference to his breakthrough and shows rejuvenated energy and integrity. But while Legend is the best Wu album since Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele, it falls short of being a classic. GZA isn't the most versatile vocalist, tending to ride one signature rhythm throughout the tunes. He consistently overcomes his stylistic limitations, however, through the use of concise, evocative lyrics and waves of internal rhymes. On "Luminal," for instance, he sketches out his horror show with journalistic detail, following a serial killer as he teaches a small town to learn to lock its doors.

But the fact remains that the vintage-sounding "Fam" would've blended into the background of the original Liquid Swords, whereas here it stands out as a highlight. Likewise such tracks as the music industry double-take "Did Ya Say That," the reggae-inflected "Highway Robbery," and the hard-hitting "Knock Knock" all merit multiple listens, but leave one's breath intact. Although the production by RZA, Allah Mathematics, DJ Muggs, and six others feels potent on occasion, it mainly seems desperately disparate. And straight-up misses like the lyrically gimmicky "Fame," which plays with celebrities' names, and "Animal Planet," which pours on the Bar-Kays strings too thickly, suggest that the best part of GZA's legend may already have been told.

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Greg Doherty