Not since the heyday of New York’s Native Tongues posse–A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Jungle Brothers–has a hip-hop cooperative shown the vivid imagination, stunning lyrical flow, and conceptual flair of the Wu-Tang Clan. With a strange combination of martial arts iconography, drug-inspired trippy verbal cadence, murky beats, dark humor, and an energy emboldened by an edge-of-insanity recklessness, this Staten Island crew has undergone an unlikely ascent to the top of the hip-hop world. Though 1993’s mediocre Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) is the collective’s sole joint release–a new album is due this summer–subsequent efforts by Clan associates Method Man, Gravediggaz, Shyhein, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and Genius have left little doubt about the depth of talent. Cameos by Method Man and ODB on records by, respectively, chart toppers Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey have only increased the Clan’s mainstream acceptance. As a group and individually the members rap on the usual matters, painting bleak but vivid portraits of poverty (as ODB indelicately puts it in “Raw Hide,” “I came outta my mother’s pussy, I’m on welfare, I’m 26 years old, I’m still on welfare”). The combination of their delivery–alternately maniacally charged and lazily slurred–and the masterfully doped-up production of Prince Rakeem presents their vision like nothing else. Sets by individual group members along with a joint set are promised. Friday, 9 PM, Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee; 509-6482 or 800-246-2752. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Danny Clinch/Susan Shacter.