Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Only hip hop obsessives can track the comings and goings of the Wu-Tang Clan, whose unnumbered members have generated over a dozen albums since Enter the Wu-Tang (The 36 Chambers) laid out the Staten Island street ethos in 1993. In 1999 alone the Wu has thrown up the all-new Wu-Chronicles hodgepodge on its own Wu-Tang label as well as the second solo project by GZA/Genius, Beneath the Surface (MCA). This typically obscure and enticing manifesto adds to the usual mystagogy the balm of some female voices, a welcome touch in a self-contained world where men are called "gods" and women "earths." But that doesn't mean outsiders are liable to brave its imaginatively orchestrated surface.

RZA's Greatest Hits (Razor Sharp/Epic) is a welcome solution to this problem. RZA is Wu-Tang's master producer, inventor of the cinematic signature sound that added kung fu dialogue and soundtrack-style piano parts and orchestral washes to a canon of funk elements. On this compilation, he cherry-picks the most accessible creations from both Enter the Wu-Tang and the solo work of Method Man, Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and my favorite, Ghostface Killah. Simple musically by Wu standards, long on jokes, boasts, come-ons, and legible stories, these street anthems rationalize the collective's survivalist, postgangsta, Black Muslim-derived ethos with poetry, detail, and moral dignity. Ghostface Killah sums it up: "The truth in the song be the pro-black teaching."

Musical travelogue of the year: Natacha Atlas's Gedida, which discards the hither-and-yon world-pop excesses of the sometime Transglobal Underground frontperson to focus on what she does best: the Arab diva act, speeded up and subtly modernized without sacrificing sonorities of either language or instrumentation that makes Middle Eastern culture sound like Middle Eastern culture. More authentic than The Mummy, I guarantee it.

Playboy, July 1999

June 1999 Aug. 1999