On the cover of 2001's ''Iron Flag,'' an army-fatigue-clad Wu-Tang Clan appeared ready for battle. And sure enough, the hip-hop collective have since been fighting rumors of internal warfare and grumblings that they're past their peak. But even if they never reclaim their glory, they yield roughly one satisfying Wu solo CD a year, effectively keeping Staten Island on the musical map. (Sorry, Eamon doesn't count.)
Happily, that streak continues with The Pretty Toney Album, where Ghostface comes off as hungrier than ever to produce thrilling hip-hop. ''Pretty Toney'' plumbs the same grimy depths as his 1996 classic debut, ''Ironman,'' while gregariously spinning romantic tales with a refreshing emotional attachment. Ghostface possesses that rare ability to infuse a street anthem with gripping cinematic tension (''It's Over'') yet also unabashedly celebrate his woman on an old-school jam (''Save Me Dear'') without losing credibility in either arena. So what if Wu-Tang are in decline? At least one member is still on the rise.