Between the ascendance of underground hip-hop and the success of commercial posses like the Ruff Riders, the once-ubiquitous Wu-Tang Clan has been crowded out of the limelight. There have been a few solo efforts since the Wu’s landmark double album Wu-Tang Forever was released a couple years ago–most notably by Method Man and RZA–but recently the group has attracted more attention for the Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s whimsical name changes and numerous arrests than anything else. That may be why Beneath the Surface (MCA), the new album by GZA (aka Genius), has gotten a lukewarm reception from the press so far, but if so it’s a shame, because the record is one of the strongest any member of the collective has made. RZA, the Wu’s celebrated sonic architect, appears only as a guest rapper, and while the string samples suggest his influence, producers Mathematics and Arabian Knight aren’t biting his beats. Their tracks are sharp and punchy, maintaining the trademark Wu darkness without RZA’s sonic sluggishness. GZA himself, though never a particularly dynamic or stylish rapper, has always been the most articulate member of the group, and while he has less to say here than he did on his previous album, Liquid Swords, he still manages to express more ideas in one track than DMX does in an entire album. The album title clearly refers to the hip-hop underground–GZA even grapples with old-fashioned art-versus-commerce concerns on “Hip Hop Fury.” But there’s another level to it, revealed in the title track: “On a man-made lake there’s a sheet of thin ice / Where unskilled skaters couldn’t figure-eight twice.” In the hip-hop life, he seems to be saying, one false move can drag you down. There’s no shortage of boasting on the album, but even this hint of vulnerability is unusual for the Wu. This is GZA’s first solo performance in Chicago. Thursday, August 19, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T. Hopkins.