If the title of Wu-Tang Clan's sophomore album, Wu-Tang Forever, echoes Batman Forever, it's no coincidence: Even the ads, which feature Wu-Tang's batlike W symbol illuminated by spotlights, ape the Batman series' high-concept posters. It's the box office clout of the Caped Crusader that makes the comparison apt, though. Forever is rap's event movie of the summer. A sprawling sequel to a hip-hop benchmark, the 27-track double CD is destined to ''sell more copies than Kinko's,'' as Wu-Tang mastermind, the RZA, forecasts on Forever's ''Reunited.''
If expectations are high, it's because the Wu-Tang collective has proved to be rap's premier creative force in the four years since its debut, 1993's hardcore rap masterpiece Enter the Wu-Tang. Enter hit the then-stagnant hip-hop scene like a slap in the face, parading its strikingly original gutter funk like a ghetto peacock. Bringing together eight prodigiously talented East Coast MCs GhostFace Killah, Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Genius (GZA), Masta Killah, U-God, Method Man, and the RZA the Clan built colorful personas that ingeniously borrowed from Islamic scriptures, comic-book superheroes, kung-fu flicks, and Mafia lore. The real star of the show, however, was the RZA's production, which delivered some of the rawest grooves in rap history. Over lo-fi basement beats and blunted psychedelic loops that were trip-hop before the phrase was even coined, the Clan hammered out a new-style inner-city blues, with head bobbers like ''C.R.E.A.M.'' managing both ruffneck ''realness'' and surprising poignancy.
Forever continues the group's artistic grand slam. Like their forebears in Public Enemy, Wu-Tang are musical revolutionaries, unafraid to bring the noise along with their trunk of funk. The RZA allows a few outside producers behind the board this time, but it's his gritty samples and numbing beats that get the party moving. Expanding his vocabulary of sounds, he deploys dueling acoustic guitars and Godfather-style violins to give ''Reunited'' a bewitching old-world ominousness; and ''Impossible'' places flamenco picking behind the silken tones of rookie soul singer Tekitha, who adds female flavor to the Clan's testosterone-heavy crunch.
The RZA's not the only Wu-Tanger to evolve on Forever. Method Man whose solo debut, Tical, was one of 1994's highlights raps more assuredly than ever, his distinctive growl tearing up each verse. Ol' Dirty Bastard's marble-mouthed scatting enlivens cuts like ''As High As Wu-Tang Get'' with bawdy humor. And when new Wu fighter CappaDonna claims ''my raps swing like Willie Mays'' (on ''For Heavens Sake''), it's no empty boast.
Less clear-cut is Forever's lyric message, which tangles socially conscious raps (''Wu-Revolution''), murderous rampages (''Severe Punishment''), recycled cliches (a nasty sex rap, ''Maria''), and curveballs (the seduction jam ''Black Shampoo'') into a curious mix. Still, what ultimately emerges is a message of empowerment. ''Wu-Revolution'' (which asks, ''Why do we kill each other?'') opens the record on an unexpectedly positive note. And the standout ''A Better Tomorrow'' speaks passionately to urban struggles. Over soulful piano and strings, Method Man relays the sad but hopeful story of ''Tomorrow,'' recounting how his mother implored him ''not to wind up like your old dad, still searching for the glory days he never had.'' It's here that Forever's contradictions begin to make sense: The song doesn't deny the grim reality of a hip-hop nation that allowed Biggie and Tupac to die. Within its lessons, however, lies hope for a way out. Try finding that kind of catharsis in Batman & Robin. A