PREPUBESCENT GIRLS all have their preferred Backstreet Boy or Spice Girl. Beatles fans have been known to stand behind their favorite mop-top. Likewise, most hardcore hiphop heads have a favorite Wu-Tang Clan member.

For many, it's Raekwon, a.k.a. the Chef, a.k.a. Shallah Raekwon, a.k.a. Lex Diamonds. Sure, he lacks the notoriety of marble-mouthed loose cannon Ol' Dirty Bastard, or the raspy, ever-blunted, mic-wrecking rep of Method Man. And no, he hasn't been all over the charts on duets with Mariah, Mary J., or Limp Bizkit. Rae's more low-key, less celebrity; a street-corner orator; a Wu member for the masses. A storyteller rather than a stream-of-conscious rhymesmith, he tosses out unlikely metaphors that beckon you to keep your finger near the rewind button. He's also the Shaolin slangmaster, credited with introducing new words and phrases like "politic ditto," "cream," and "darts" into the hiphop vernacular.

Despite his lower profile, Rae's first solo release, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, became an instant hardcore classic, widely considered the best solo project by a Wu-Tang member. Adopting Wu-Gambino alter egos, he and fellow Wu-Tanger Ghostface Killah dropped cinéma vérité-style mafioso narratives, which inspired a slew of Godfather-esque knock-offs.

On his second, recently released solo album, Immobilarity, Rae broadens his repertoire. Alongside tales of bad drug deals and revenge, you get some hijinks in the hood, uplifting messages about the importance of family, and cautionary words about the dangers of a life of crime. The production--handled by handpicked up-and-comers rather than the RZA--is less doom-and-gloom, with a nice helping of radio-friendly, danceable fare. The new disc is more of a real solo effort. Within the Wu dynasty, Rae and Ghostface are generally thought of as a tag team, inseparable partners-in-rhyme: doing press together, bouncing back and forth between each other's songs. In this go-around, though, 'Face is ghost on most of the cuts.

Seeing a live Wu-Tang gig, whether it's a solo thing or a group event, is like playing the Lotto: It's utterly random; you never know the numbers; and it's hit or miss. As a crew, the Wu are notorious flakes, and stories of no-shows and half-assed shows abound. But Raekwon is focused, hungrier. Odds are you're in for a solid show.