For the quote, unquote real hip hop heads out there, few, if any albums this year were more anticipated than 8 Diagrams. The once mighty Wu-Tang Clan have formed like Voltron once in a blue moon over the last decade, and the results haven't exactly been mind blowing. It has been nearly 6 years to the day since Iron Flag, by far the longest gap between albums. After the lukewarm reception and performance of the album, and the subsequent years of internal squabbles, more than a few people are surprised that we're even getting a new Wu album.
From '93 to '96 the crew crafted a legacy that is virtually without parallel, producing three albums - 36 Chambers, Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords - that are all worthy of top ten all-time consideration, if not no-brainers. Unfortunately, with such success comes unreasonably high expectations; both to maintain the quality and the sound that so often left us with our jaws on the floor. This time around, the hiatus has only made fans thirstier and the expectations higher. 8 Diagrams will not meet those expectations in either category - unless you're fooling yourself because you're just so happy to hear the Clan in the front once again.
Recently amidst a tirade against RZA, Raekwon claimed this isn't an album anyone wanted to make, it was an album that RZA wanted to make. The production is slow, soft and often unremarkable, and the emcees follow suit and sleep walk through their verses with seemingly little interest. With the exception of U-God, who sounds better than he ever has, and Meth who sounds great, there is little fire being breathed. Rae, Ghost and GZA are the worst culprits, sounding as if they'd rather be shopping for wally's. Thankfully, while the deliveries are rarely inspired the lyrically swords are still sharp and provide satisfaction for long time Wu fans. The Heart Gently Weeps boasts the LP's best lyrical performances with Ghost, Rae and Meth display their storytelling ability. Unfortunately, what was an immaculate song when it released months ago is now a monstrosity. RZA completely changed the beat and the new one is barely listenable. Make no mistake; there is still quality production too. Campfire starts things off something lovely, a dark and dreary number that is probably the best song on the album. Rushing Elephants and Windmill are other standouts, both pumping some much needed adrenaline into the album (though why is RZA re-using all those samples in Windmill?). Weak Spot is far from being one, a dope track reminiscent of the latter half of Forever. Despite a puzzling absence of Ghost, Life Changes is a great tribute to ODB. Each member gives their perspective over solemn production that fits the moment beautifully.
Most of the production however, is an entirely different animal. Clearly inspired by his recent scoring of movies, RZA largely abandons any edge or rawness in favor of flexing his "musician" muscle. You've gotta respect his right to create new sounds, and he does a decent job, but it just isn't that great...and certainly not what most of his fans want to hear. If you're gonna change up your style, the new one better be incredible too. RZA didn't do that when he went "digital" and he isn't doing it now. There are moments he really knocks it out, such as the aforementioned Campfire and Weak Spot. But there are too many moments that are, well, pretty boring. Get Them Out The Way Pa and Gun Will Go are the worst culprits, and both liable to put you to sleep. Unpredictable and Starter aren't boring, they're just plain bad. Unpredictable packs a nauseating beat and Starter not only has RZA re-using drums from Afro Samurai, but is terribly disjointed with a rancid hook. Shouldn't Sunlight be closing out the album instead of Tar Pit (since 16th Chamber is a bonus track)? For real though, and with all dope emcee RZA is getting the only solo track?
It isn't so much that there are a lot of bad songs on the album; it is that there is very little that is at all memorable. Five years from now we're not going to go back and play songs like Tar Pit, Gun Will Go, Wolves, Get Them Out Ya Way Pa, Take It Back, etc, etc. Along with the high expectations, it is difficult for Wu to please these days with so many emcees. They have all got multiple solo albums now with flushed out styles, personalities and sounds. On 36 Chambers it was all new and didn't matter, and Forever there was enough to go around. These days it is near impossible to get what you want from any given member from just a handful of 16's. Ghost, GZA and Deck particularly just didn't seem to be the force they usually are. 8 Diagrams was a monumental task already, and RZA's experimental and relatively boring production didn't help matters. There was a time where no one could tailor a beat for a specific artist like the RZA, yet too many songs on this album are in no way played for the strengths or styles of this group. For most, this is a good album, make no mistake about it. But for the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, it's not very good at all. There is plenty to fuck with here, and there shouldn't be.