One minute into 8 Diagrams, a sludge guitar strum, doo-wop rhythm section and gospel vocals circle around some Kung Fu dialogue about the importance of kindness. Method Man hops on the ensuing beat continuing his recent blaze: "Still got a wicked flow / I'm like Barry Bonds on anything that RZA throw." Ghost takes the baton repeating the last line, "On anything that RZA throw / Ironman invisible.” The line speaks volumes about the first Wu-Tang Clan album in six years: This is Bobby Digital's show.
The Abbot's wild style peaks on 8 Diagrams, melding true-school beats with an array of instruments (seething horns, vibrating harpsichords, lots of guitar) while conducting liturgical crooners and ghetto divas on almost every track. "Rushing Elephants" is a prime example of what Raekwon qualmed about in interviews when he said RZA's "trying to create too much of an orchestra."
The title of "Unpredictable" aptly describes the elliptical board work. Percussion rushes the spot, feedback squeals and Morricone-like strings stab. The slinking "Get Them Out Ya Way Pa" ticks along with wind chimes, cymbal taps and oblique guitar lines. "Take it Back" employs piano plinks, pre-tablist scratching and the album's deepest baseline. Razor-sharp "Gun Will Go" is a lay-up for an MC, with RZA affixing a wobbly violin to a standup bass, before dropping everything but the break for Masta Killa's lucid verse. The instrumental version of 8 Diagrams (you know it’s coming) will rival other albums released for that purpose alone.
Even if RZA's if-you-got-it-light-it production – the clear high-point – is reason enough to keep this in the crates, the album is just as much about how the vastly disparate Wu MCs handle the Abbot's eccentric constructions. Unofficial ninth member Cappadonna gets the enviable third verse on the opener, and he's the only rapper to fire darts here aside from the original swordsmen, but you’d never know the rest are 14-year vets. RZA keeps everyone off-kilter, unsure exactly how to handle the meandering beats.
Method Man feels most at home with RZA's schizoid backbeats and he's spot on boasting, "Front and get your dinner ate / your chilla for the winter wait / I'm bringing sexy back like Timberland and Timberlake." Ghost doesn't seem completely immersed in the proceedings, but he still owns the highlight reel. On his introductory verse he jeers: "We gone have a ball / might as well pick a testicle." Later, he's in a grocery store before beating down a potential murderer: "I brought my bitch out to Pathmark / she pushing the cart / heading to aisle 4 damn I got milk on my Clarks / that's what I get not focusing from hitting that bark / my mouth dry need plenty water quick feel like a shark / in the aisle busting those paper towels and wiping my Wallys down / the barrel he's holding a shiny pound." "Bearded like the Taliban," Raekwon breathes some fire on "Gun Will Go": "These little niggas they be making shapes / Our shit is art / Yours is trace."
The record takes some bizarre turns. On "Wolves," George Clinton howls some inane shit (even for him) about coyotes and foxes. A falsetto Ghostface one-ups that, singing "You better kill me/ You know you're booty / You pulled your toolie out on me" in the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" vocal melody. RZA upstages them both on "Sunlight," invoking Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, pretending to be a fly and slurring: "I've been highly misunderstood by those who met us / They had ears of corn and heads of lettuce.”
Toward the end of 8 Diagrams, Raekwon dares anyone to find Wu's "Weak Spot." "The Heart Gently Weeps" – sporting a legally-cleared Beatles' sample – would be a good starting point. Needless to say, the track pales in the shadow of hype. The number of played metaphors is also disconcerting, hitting a low with "We keep it fresh like Tupperware." GZA barely shows up. And although they shine in spots, there's a reason lower-tier members like Cappadonna, U-God and even Deck – who repeats the line "Bitches ride like the Scream Machine" from his solo anthem "What They Want – never had breakout albums. The most blatant sign of the crew's splintering dynamics comes during the Ol’ Dirty Bastard tribute "Life Changes." Ghost is no show.
These flaws aside, a mustering of Shaolin's original bombers is a shape-shifting event. Minus ODB, the collective's most charismatic member, and rife with in-group strife, 8 Diagrams is a long way from the hip hop revolution, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It still ain't nothin’ to fuck with.
By Jake O'Connell