The W received generally positive reviews from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 80, based on 17 reviews. Aside from calling Wu-Tang "the best rap group ever," Kris Ex of Rolling Stone called the album "A sonic gestalt that exists somewhere between the Queensbridge projects and OutKast's Stankonia."The Rolling Stone Album Guide later gave the album four-and-a-half out of five stars in 2004, and called its production "possibly RZA's most consistent yet."Entertainment Weekly's Matt Diehl gave The W a B+ rating, and remarked that the members sound "utterly mellow on their third album." He further stated "The W forgoes innovation and simply revels in the Clan's strengths: the way their star rappers toss around rhymes as if playing catch; RZA's skulking, string-enhanced beats." Kelefa Sanneh of The Village Voice declared it "The best-produced Wu-affiliated album since GZA's 1995 Liquid Swords.Q gave the album four out of five stars and stated "The W is largely a return to murky idiosyncratic form after 1997's filler-bloated Wu-Tang Forever. Weighing in at a svelte 60 minutes, it plays to the group's main strengths: brutal hooks and scary ambience." Dave Heaton of PopMatters described it as "the sound of a group growing up and realizing that collaboration can lead to endless creativity" and commented on its significance in the group's catalogue, stating:
The Wu-Tang Clan of today is not the same as the Clan of 1993. And for this, we are blessed. Every Wu-Tang Clan member is growing as an MC as the years go by. Put them all together again now, after they've each done their own things separately, and you get an entirely new dynamic, a mix of the dark and the bright.
Despite commenting that "The W isn't quite the masterpiece it sounds like after the first few tracks [...] it falls prey to inconsistency, resulting in half-formed tracks", Allmusic editor John Bush praised the album's "back-to-basics approach", writing that it "not only because it rightly puts the focus back on the best cadre of rappers in the world of hip-hop, but also because RZA's immense trackmaster talents can't help but shine through [...] When they're hitting on all cylinders, Wu-Tang Clan are nearly invincible." Steve Jones of USA Today gave the album three out of four stars and called it "sharply focused." S.H. Fernando, Jr. of Vibe called it "a dense, demented, 15-song opus that will now draw comparisons to the now classic 36 Chambers." He further noted its "originality, innovation, and a mastery of the fundamentals of beats and rhymes", and commented "This album goes against the grain of everything that's going on in rap right now". Sasha Frere-Jones of Spin complimented RZA's diverse range of production and the group's word play. In his consumer guide for The Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau gave The W an A- rating, indicating "the kind of garden-variety good record that is the great luxury of musical micromarketing and overproduction". Christgau commented that he "can't swear they've taken their moral vision much beyond "'Handle your bid and kill no kids'", but praised RZA's production and stated "He serves up a bounty of song-centered musique trouvée and stomach-churning beats from anywhere [...] Far from straining, he's gone sensei, achieving a craft in which the hand leads the mind".