Nothing perplexed me more in the world of music this year than the reaction to the new Wu-Tang Clan album, 8 Diagrams.
2007 has been undoubtedly the busiest year of my life, which explains my lengthy absence from posting on this site but also explains why I actually heard the new Wu record before I read anything about it (rare in this day and age, especially for a pop culture addict like myself). I listened to it the night I purchased it and then listened to it again and then again, and then one more time, so that I was going to sleep at 3 a.m. when I had to be up at the crack of dawn. I couldn't help myself. I felt like I was digesting a true masterpiece – an album that people will be talking about 10 and 20 years from now.
Then I went online the next to day to read what I assumed would be the dozens of glowing reviews, expecting an army of genuflecting critics kneeling before the alter of the Clan. Instead, what I found was a lot of harsh criticism, half-hearted praise and above all else lukewarm responses galore.
What on earth?
And so it is that the new Wu-Tang Clan album has brought me out of my recent hiatus, both to defend its honor as well as to proclaim it my Hip-Hop Album of the Year. (Note: I stop short of calling it the overall album of the year, although it is in my top five. I just liked the 2007 efforts by The National and Wilco too much to give the Shaolin Soldiers the top spot.)
Granted, it wasn’t a banner year in rap, but I still feel like I’m alone on an island in regard to this choice. Until the flurry of fourth quarter releases, I was content to give the title to Kanye, along with everybody else. I loved Graduation and honestly didn’t expect anyone from the trio of Wu, Ghost, and Lupe to strip Mr. West of the honor of Hip-Hop Album of the Year. But then I had my all-night Wu-Tang listening party and the decision was pretty much made.
But just to be sure I’ve given this record another 12 or 200 spins, broken it down piece by piece, then reassembled it. I’ve listened to it on trains, planes, and in automobiles. Over speakers and through headphones. I’ve given it every chance to fail, for my ears to hear the mediocrity I keep reading about. It’s not happening.
Perhaps I’m just showing my age. The Wu’s epic reign over rap music in the 1990s coincided with the height of my Hip-Hop appreciation, when the only sounds playing in my 1983 Volvo and in my college dorm room where the beats and rhymes of rap. And while I flirted with the No Limit craze and always appreciated Redman and certainly got excited about Jay-Z and Eminem and the Alkoholics and a bunch of other great stuff from the back half of that decade, it was always about Wu-Tang for me. At 29, maybe I just represent the target market for the 2007 version of the Wu. It is entirely possible that I’m just getting old.
However, I think it is more than that, because while I certainly fall somewhere in the general description of a “hipster” rap fan, I don’t quite glean my opinion from the hordes of snobby blogs and pretentious music websites like so many other hipsters out there. And I also don’t necessarily think that Ghostface is the greatest musical artist alive, which I believe is important.
You see, the Ghostface fascination has reached a point where he can do no wrong. From his genuine classics like Ironman and Supreme Clientele to his albums that were more scattered-but-still-treated-like-classics such as 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album and 2006’s doubleheader of Fishscale and More Fish (don’t get me wrong, I loved them all, but they weren’t as good as everyone made them out to be) to his cameo on 30 Rock to his children’s book (okay, I made that last one up), Ghost can do no wrong in the eyes of the hipsters and the critics.
So when he and Raekwon came out and launched a war against the RZA and tried to discredit 8 Diagrams while alternatively pushing Ghost’s new The Big Doe Rehab as the “real” Wu-Tang album, I think that a huge segment of the music critic population was influenced. To put it bluntly, they let their love of Ghostface blind them to the actual merits of 8 Diagrams, trusting his opinion over their own. They never gave this RZA masterpiece a chance. Never really listened, the way I did that first night (and probably never would have, had I too been aware of what Ghost was saying).
Because when you really listen to 8 Diagrams, what you hear is an incredible hip-hop album. RZA has arranged a collection of songs more varied and creative and atmospheric than anything else that came out this year. I’m not sure he could ever top Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) or his work on GZA’s Liquid Swords but he gives those albums a pretty good run for their lives. His production work is just off the charts, which is saying something considering how impressed I was with Kanye’s work on the boards on Graduation. I’ll go as far as to say that if the RZA were to be the sole producer on a 50 Cent album, he could single-handedly restore 50’s credibility with just one record. He’s that smart and talented and aware of what he’s doing.
As for the rapping, you can’t ask for much more than an album full of dense lyrics from the whole Wu crew, bar after bar crammed onto hyperkinetic and foreboding tracks with few rote choruses and almost no real hooks at all. If you like radio rap or club jams, this probably isn’t the album for you, but if you love grimy rap, stripped of all its pretense and nonsense, I don’t see how you could NOT love 8 Diagrams.
To prove my thesis (which is impossible because ultimately the appreciation of music is about individual taste, but whatever), I’m going track by track, breaking down every beat and every verse. Maybe I have it all wrong and maybe I’m just too old to get it anymore, but I defy someone to set aside the Ghostface drama, listen to this album, and tell me it's not awesome.
Anyway, here are the tracks:
1. "Campfire:" The Kung-Fu movie dialogue intro speaks to the way one should digest music in this day and age: “We must be patient.” This is followed with a gorgeous singing intro which leads to a rattling and rumbling beat and an immediate Method Man verse. This is the Method Man we haven’t heard in years, the one that I watched on Season Three of The Wire and wished would someday rap with the same passion he was displaying in his acting.
2. "Take it Back:" This is probably the biggest throwback track on the album and what it lacks in obvious creativity it makes up for in simplicity. The beat just bounces along and stays out of the way, giving guys like Rae, Ghost, and Deck the chance to shine on the strength of their verses alone. Ghost in particularly absolutely murders this song and Deck goes back to his familiar role of “scene stealer” among the bigger names, providing a verse that will be worth listening to for years to come.
3. "Get Them Out Ya Way Pa:" The beat on this is almost impossibly slick. It just glides along with a pulsing bass line and sets up the aggressive call-and-response chorus, mixing in the occasional cymbal, guitar lick, and sprinkles of what sound like wind chimes. This is RZA giving a master’s course in the power of a subtle arrangement. No one is particularly good on the mic as Meth loses some of his momentum, U-God is only slightly above average, and Masta Killa is the star of the song (not typically a good sign).
4. "Rushing Elephants:" This is when things really start heating up on the album. This track is on every playlist I have working right now, from my writing mixes to the random CD’s I pop into my car on the way to work (no, I don’t have an iPod hookup). The first 45 seconds are pure magic: the little horns and Rae’s “yeah, yeah, yeah” leading into the colliding drums and bass and then the sharpest Raekwon verse in almost a decade (although he came surprisingly close on last year’s Ill Bill mixtape). Then no chorus and bam, the first GZA appearance on the record and it’s a good one. Who cares what the rest of the song even includes? (For the record though, it is RZA’s best verse on the album and another solid Masta Killa contribution.)
5. "Unpredictable:" Here is one song where I pretty much know right off the top that I like it more than everyone else. And that is because it reminds me of my favorite stuff from Deck’s first solo album and also because RZA manages to accomplish the rare feat of successfully working in an electric guitar over the clanging and uber-aggressive track. (I would argue that it is the best use of electric guitar in a rap song since Kanye layered them into Freeway’s “Turn Out The Lights.”)
6. "The Heart Gently Weeps:" This is the one song that all the critics are fawning over and it is easy to see why. Between the outstanding RZA track that (as you know by now) is the first to legally sample a Beatles song and the transcendent Ghostface verse about a shootout with the vengeful nephew of a guy that died from the drugs Ghost once sold to him, there is plenty to get the critics in a lather.
7. "Wolves:" While it might not be the best track on the album from a technical standpoint, “Wolves” is my favorite song on this record. I love the George Clinton ramblings that recall 2Pac’s “U Can’t See Me,” the tiny little ODB sample 20 seconds in, the best U-God verse of all time, the eerie “oohs” in the background, the awesome lead-in and sparse mix that RZA throws on the beat at the beginning of Masta Killa’s verse and, well, pretty much everything on this song. Download this, throw it in a random mix, and tell me it's not one of the best rap songs you’ve heard this year.
8. "Gun Will Go:" I used the word “slick” to define the beat of “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa,” but it is even more appropriate here. RZA shows ridiculous restraint, laying down a simple track for the verses and then incorporating a creepy violin during the rich, lush Sunny Valentine chorus. This arrangement certainly makes Rae sound good on the opening stanza, but it really brings Method Man to the forefront. I feel comfortable saying that this is the best Meth has sounded since about 1995.
9. "Sunlight:" I will admit that this could be argued as a bit of a weak spot on the album, mainly because it feels too indulgent on RZA’s part. It sounds like a RZA song that would come from a solo record. That doesn’t change the fact that it is still arranged nicely and features a pretty solid lyrical effort, but it is just a letdown from the momentum of the previous four tracks and something that doesn’t really belong on a Wu album. 10. "Stick Me For My Riches:" I was ready to anoint this as an all-time classic Wu cut until my brother told me he didn’t even like it a little bit. That gave me pause. But I shook that off and am back to loving this song. Gerald Alston provides a perfect intro (it just builds and builds), Method Man is a house of fire here, and both Deck (sounding more like Freddie Foxx than himself – are we sure that’s him?) and GZA give their usual reliably tight verses.
11. "Starter:" Here’s how I know this album is amazing – because even when Wu lowers itself to the obligatory sex track that plagues nearly every rap album of the 21st Century, the song is still pretty awesome. RZA comes through with a gurgling track full of punctuating horns and a driving beat that allows all comers to throw out tight and compelling verses. The lyrics aren’t anything terribly amazing, but they all sound fantastic. Even the Streetlife cameo is pretty awesome, which is saying something.
12. "Windmill." I love this song. It is all sped up and frantic with that little wail in the background that make Rae and Ghost sound so at home (too bad Ghost isn’t on this one, he would have destroyed it). Once again, RZA gave his Wu members a better track to work with than anything they could go get from outside help. It doesn’t hurt a bit to have a killer GZA contribution right in the middle of it all. Oh, and this is probably the best Deck has sounded in years – probably since his guest spot on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds.”
13. "Weak Spot:" Another vintage Kung-Fu intro that leads right into vintage Wu-Tang. This song is dark and dense and immediately identifiable as a Wu banger. You wouldn’t even need to hear the RZA verse to know that he made it. It isn’t transcendent in any way or anything too terribly new, but it is just flawless Wu-Tang. People who love these guys likely love this song. Rae brings it, GZA brings it, and it’s all smothered in a stomping beat and martial art sound bites. If only it was the final song on the album.
14. "Life Changes:" I believe this is the weakest song on the album. The Freda Payne sample is pretty much a straight rip and drop in and over half the verses are lazy and boring. I think that this mediocre tribute to ODB is one of the reasons that people are kind of down on the album, which is a little ludicrous. It is, after all, just one song. But I understand that it is disappointing.
All told, this is an album with few flaws and a ton of highlights. I wish there was more GZA on the first half and Ghost on the second half and that they had done more with the ODB tribute, but overall, I have few complaints.
Add it all up and it is enough to get the Wu past Kanye and into the top spot on my list of 2007 rap albums. I just wonder why no one else sees it that way.