It says something that the Wu-Tang Clan enlisted Ronald Isley to sing the hook on “Back in the Game,” one of the most defiant songs on their latest album, Iron Flag (Loud). As the silken voice of the Isley Brothers, he’s presided over the countless stylistic shifts that have kept that group a chart presence for half a century. The Wu have a long way to go to achieve that kind of longevity, but it’s clearly what they’re gunning for. “Just when you thought we would fold our hand / Against all odds we raised the bet, like we changed the plans,” raps GZA. Although the stutter-stepping beats and jazzy piano-guitar-organ lattice of “Back in the Game” were crafted by producers Poke and Tone, the bulk of Iron Flag finds RZA reinvesting in the group (he produced eight of the album’s dozen tracks) and reinventing his sound. Out go the ominous strings and murky atmospheres, in come propulsive soul music brass riffs and crisp yet off-kilter rhythmic schemes that dance together just far enough out of sync to incite delirium. The album also engages in a little post-September 11 propaganda–the crew dons military gear and effects an Iwo Jima pose on the cover, and “Rules” is a retaliatory manifesto, as Ghostface Killah dares terrorists to mess with his neighborhood before asserting, “America, together we stand, divided we fall / Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war!” The mad interjections of the presently incarcerated Ol’ Dirty Bastard are missed, but Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav chips in a nice rant on “Soul Power (Black Jungle).” The Wu-Tang Clan may no longer be the powerful commercial force they were a few short years ago, but Iron Flag establishes them as one of the few hip-hop groups to remain relevant for an entire decade–hey, one down, four to go. Saturday, March 23, 11:30 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.

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