Wu-Tang Clans first album since 2001 is already shrouded in controversy and legend. The Clan is at a strange crossroads as infighting plays out in real-time through back and forth interviews and videos. With that said, its hard not to feel a chicken or egg scenario when listening to their new opus 8 Diagrams (SRC). Does the lack of cohesiveness found throughout the album bolster and prove some of the members claims of friction? Or does hearing those claims manipulate you into hearing something that doesnt exist? Fans of the Wu would love to believe the latter, but while the album contains its share of gold, the former ultimately prevails.
This isnt to say the members dont shine. Ghostface continues his ability to adapt his flow to any beat possible, while Method Man sounds inspired and determined throughout the album. That energy is not always shared by all the swordsmen, as verses from GZAs on Starter or Raekwons on Weak Spot sound phoned in. It's as if the talent of the group, which once played off each other and grew, is now being passed around in some bizarre Hip-Hop zero-sum game.
With guitars implemented in nearly half of the tracks, its use alternates between ominous (Weak Spot) and soaring (Sunlight). Dont get it twisted though, RZA who produce most of the album, avoids any forced Rap/Rock collaborations and uses the instrument as an effective minimalist addition. John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays with restrained excellence which supplements, and doesnt dominate, both Heart Gently Weeps and Windmill.
Musically 8 Diagrams is arguably RZAs most diverse group of beats, ranging from circus/horror movie strings on Rushing Elephants to the snake-charmer, ragtime-inspired horn driven Starter, to dirty funk guitar lick laden Take It Back. The albums consistent diversity, unlike the consistent grittiness of say, a 36 Chambers or consistent electro-funk of Bobby Digital in Stereo, will either fully elate or frustrate the listener.
Its probably not a coincidence that the strongest effort Life Changes sees everyone minus Ghost join together for a eulogy of sorts to Ol Dirty Bastard. Over a slow soulful sample, each member shares their thoughts and memories on Dirt Dog. Its hard to hear GZA rhyme, I cried like a baby on the way to his place of death/Hate not being here the minutes before he left/Now Im in the booth ten feet from where he lay dead/I think about him on the song and what he might have said, without getting a little choked up. Given the groups current situation, this tribute is proof that the eight remaining members of one of Hip-Hops greatest groups can still sound like a team. If only it took less than tragedy to regularly make that happen.