By Chet Betz | 5 February 2008
Playing God: Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams
If I were god, I’d kick U-God’s ass right off this album. Rollie Pemberton a.k.a. Cadence Weapon thinks that U-God is one of the only Clan members on 8 Diagrams who sounds like he still cares. He may still care, but he’s still not a good rapper. Maybe I just don’t like his voice; his lyrical crimes here are minor compared to, say, his verse on “Iron God Chamber” from Masta Killa’s Made in Brooklyn (2006). But, hey, I don’t have to be fair, I’m god here. U-God can stay for “Life Changes,” though, and we’ll get to why soon enough. In the meantime I think RZA tries to still care, but then who knows what the fuck he was thinking with “Sunlight,” where the Prince zones out over a “beat” that sounds like the laziest Beauty and the Beat (2005) B-side imaginable. I-God will not suffer psychedelic filler to clutter up my new Wu-Tang album.
On the other hand, “Gun Will Go” and “Campfire” are close to classic Wu tracks; god saw his handiwork and was pleased. If the latter’s a past reinvented, the former’s a possible future, RZA’s newfound musical training creating string flourishes shrewdly arranged around a three-note repetition that mimics an opening vocal sample, then develops in little divergences, then returns to a chop of the sample for Masta Killa’s verse, replete with silken crooning on the hook. “Gun Will Go” is next-level Wu, and in something that’s idiomatic of 8 Diagrams Raekwon and Method Man come with surprisingly sharp verses. I mean, Raekwon and Method Man basically own this record. Method Man drops the first verse on “Campfire,” where RZA loops a baritone acapella and throws pure 36 Chambers whines over top while the drums kick-clap, this bump webbed between old movie samples. So the opener is perhaps the most Wu-Tang song on this new album, but far from sounding like a safe bet it’s a reminder of the blisters and bruises the Clan can leave on your limp ears. Raw blaze, “Campfire” is why we listen to Wu.
“Stick Me For My Riches” might be a new reason to listen to Wu, Gerald Alston lining out a smooth R&B melody fraught with paranoia, Method turning one of the finest phrases yet on a common Wu slogan: “Since mama held me / in her arms to tell me / that ‘it’s a cold world’ / I done held heat.” The Mathematics drums are Mathematics drums, but the horns and strings have a dramatic charge to their trills and peaks. This is a rich song, perhaps too fat at six minutes with verses from Deck and RZA that should have been excised. But so close to greatness, much like “Weak Spot” with its effective beat drops and the best scratched movie sample hook since forever, just undermined by a weak opening verse from RZA and bad mixing.
Similarly, “Take It Back” and “Windmill” have excellent rapping line-ups (minus U-God on the former) and possibly hot beats that aren’t mixed well and don’t even sound mastered. If I were god, I’d mix and master that shit myself, divinely intervening to get that stuff knocking. The grit and lo-fi funk wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except that it doesn’t fit in a generally slicker body of production work from RZA. Perhaps George Harrison-channeling “The Heart Gently Weeps” could be accused of also not really fitting in, what with George’s progeny and John Frusciante on guitar and Erykah Badu on the hook, and, hey, didn’t Ghostface already do this track? Whatever, though, because Ghost is still adorable over that bawling guitar: “That bitch is CRAZY.”
Meanwhile, “Rushing Elephants” has some of the album’s best raps over the album’s silliest beat. GZA: “We criticize producers ‘til their joints are right / then acupuncture the track with pinpoints of light.” Great line, Genius, but why’d you let RZA get away with what sounds like yet another Flintstones sample? Better that the vicious funk of adjacent track “Unpredictable” take these sterling Raekwon, GZA, and Masta Killa verses in the place of Deck and RZA’s breath and beat wasting (the sublimely weird Dexter Wiggle cameo sounds like TV on the Radio). On “Starter” it’s like GZA was told the other verses would belong to U-God, Deck, and Streetlife, so he raps accordingly. The beat’s perfect for a Ghostface love jam (and 8 Diagrams is in need of more Killah) so that’s what I-God make it. Just a bunch of Ghostface metaphors for crazy sexual acts while Sunny Valentine and Tash Mahogany sing the hook. There, perfect.
And if I were god, I’d straight up convict the heart of Tony Starks to get his ass on that ODB tribute track, “Life Changes.” Mourning along with a sample of Freda Jayne’s “The Road We Didn’t Take,” each Wu member drops his remembrance of Ol’ Dirty. I want to cry. I want a big Wu group-hug. You too, U-God, get in here. Without Ghostface this track’s concept is not complete, this absence of Dirt’s voice not as poignant when there’s another missing besides his. GZA almost chokes, “Now I’m in the booth / ten feet from where he lay dead / I think about him on this song / and what he might have said.” So, “Life Changes” is one Ghostface verse short of being the crushing final track that it should be, the closer that I would make it if I were god.
But I’m not god. And all the couldas, wouldas, shouldas don’t mean shit. I can’t make this album better than it is, I can’t bring back the Wu as I remember it, and I can’t create the Wu that I want now. I can only take what they give me here, as scattered and diffused an offering as it might be. Right now Wu-Tang’s a mess, members gone or members coming very close to feuding, and 8 Diagrams is a document of the confusion and all that growing old and apart. It’s a broken diorama, exceedingly imperfect, and as moving for what it isn’t as for what it is. If the Wu-Tang Clan now seems small where once they seemed larger than life, I still can’t help but find a stabbing resonance in their arc; myths disintegrate with time, brotherhoods weaken into mere association, things fall apart, all good things come to an end. I don’t know if this is that end, but I don’t begrudge 8 Diagrams for illustrating the inevitable. Life does, indeed, change. And I’m glad I’m not the god that changes it.
R.I.P. Russell Jones and Stylus.