With anticipation so high it caused debate not only among fans but among the group itself, Wu-Tang Clan's fifth studio record, 8 Diagrams, found itself at the center of attention as 2007 wound down. First there was the announcement of the successful obtainment of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" sample (which was later corrected to "interpolation," as it was actually played by Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante with help from George Harrison's son, a Wu enthusiast himself, Dhani). Then Raekwon did a highly publicized online interview in which he accused the RZA of taking a dictatorial stance regarding the shape of the album, calling him a "hip-hop hippie" who was moving the Clan in the wrong direction. Then Ghostface Killah followed suit, also protesting the timing of the release (it had been set for December 4, the same day The Big Doe Rehab was to come out, but was pushed back a week). Finally, RZA responded, diplomatically, thoughtfully, respecting the opinions of the dissenting MCs but standing by his own work.
There's reason for his confidence. Nothing RZA does is haphazard, and 8 Diagrams is clearly something he's put a lot of thought and energy into. It's beautifully, impeccably produced, from the soundtrack strings and horns of "Rushing Elephants" and "Unpredictable" to the philosophical samples and guitars that are interspersed throughout -- it's a mood record more than anything else, with no clear-cut single or fan favorites, the kind of thing that deepens and grows with every listen. Suffice it to say, it's probably not the album anyone would predict from the group after a six-year break, but it is truly RZA's crowning achievement, the result of both his years with the Wu and in Hollywood, intricate, dark, reflective, and gorgeous. These same qualities, however, can be used to support the less-than-enthusiastic response from Raekwon and Ghostface and fans of the early hard-hitting Wu-Tang of 36 Chambers (which, ironically -- or not -- was not the universally revered masterpiece it is now when it came out in 1993). The beats are certainly not something either usually raps over, and their moodiness and heavy attention to melody don't always fit their edgier flows. Still, both manage to contribute some pretty great verses -- Ghost on the Easy Mo Bee co-produced "Take It Back" ("We gonna have a ball/Might as well have a testicle") and "The Heart Gently Weeps," a song which also features the Chef at his finest, strange violent imagery and all -- and do nothing to discredit themselves, a repercussion Raekwon hinted at. In fact, all eight MCs are in fine form here. U-God, Masta Killa, and Inspectah Deck are able balance their old-school deliveries with the 23rd century beats, GZA is suitably genius-like ("Hold you for a ransom note/Goliath cutting David's throat/Grab your vests, abandon boat/And leave you out at sea to float," he spits on the excellent "Stick Me for My Riches"), RZA esoteric and serious (and the only one with a solo track, "Sunlight"), and Method Man absolutely great, showing up on no less than half the tracks, his raspy voice and tight rhymes reminiscent of his early Tical work.
8 Diagrams is certainly not perfect. There is far too much singing, particularly in the second half of the album, where things slow down considerably, which helps substantiate the criticism that's surrounded it: that it's too pretty, too soft. This is indeed a record that will be debated for a while, and one of the few about which pretty much everyone will be right, whether they love it or hate it. It is a departure from previous releases and it does focus on melody and guitars and strings, but it is also lush and well-crafted and smart and addictive. Part of what's made RZA (and the rest of the Clan) thrive is their unpredictability and inventiveness, and so to create something expected would be counterintuitive to the band's ethos, and to what's made them so revered and respected across nations and genres and generations. Hip-hop has indisputably changed since 1993, and for Wu-Tang to not change with it would be not only shortsighted, it would be detrimental to their own immense creative powers as well. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean everyone will appreciate what they've done, but that won't be because 8 Diagrams isn't good; it just depends if you're willing to (at least try to) understand it.