WU-TANG CLAN 8 DIAGRAMS (SRC/UNIVERSAL MOTOWN) GHOSTFACE KILLAH THE BIG DOE REHAB (DEF JAM)
When your music defines a massively influential sound, you're pretty much on the hook forever. Whenever people pick up one of your recordings, old or new, they want to hear the sound that made you famous. Any deviation is punishable by public flogging—you can tough it out or you can slink back to the studio, but there's no way to escape those expectations.
This is the thorn in the heel of Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA. Back in the early 90s his trademark production—basement-gritty synths, aggressive but minimal percussion, lots of looped samples of classic soul—made such a potent and resonant soundtrack for the group's world-weary project-baby social commentary that the two became inseparable in fans' minds. But RZA has clearly moved on. He's dabbled in film and TV scores (the Kill Bill movies, the U.S. version of the Afro Samurai series) that bury his original sound in live instrumentation, especially twangy retro guitar. He's acted in movies, too (Derailed, American Gangster), and written a book (The Wu-Tang Manual).
Now that RZA has his creative juices flowing with all these different projects, it's inevitable that some of them would leak into his production work on new Wu-Tang material. For 8 Diagrams, the clan's fifth outing and the first since 1997's Wu-Tang Forever that RZA has produced with little or no help, the other members have had to adapt to his evolved sensibility—which on too many songs includes not just the distracting extra instruments but nauseating R&B-style singing on the vocal hooks and refrains.
Unsurprisingly, a few of his comrades aren't too happy about it. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon have spoken out against RZA in interviews with hip-hop gossip maven Miss Info, claiming (among other things) that the group isn't happy with his work on 8 Diagrams. Raekwon even said there's a chance the clan will try to work together minus RZA in the future.
Left to his own devices, Raekwon hasn't exactly been a beat-picking pro—his projects without RZA have mostly sucked—but you don't need his help to hear the way 8 Diagrams sticks out from the rest of the clan's oeuvre. It plays more like a movie score than a Wu-Tang album. "Rushing Elephants" sounds like perverse circus music, despite the gun-clap bravado from Raekwon, GZA, RZA, and Masta Killa, and "Unpredictable" uses a fast-paced sample of Psycho-style slasher-film violins that makes RZA and Inspectah Deck's rapping seem out of place. The sentimental tribute to Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Life Changes," feels generic and insincere—all the original members contribute verses, but the way they rhyme it's like they were put on the spot, without time to work their feelings into lyrics worthy of the Wu.
Fortunately some of the defining elements of the Wu-Tang Clan's music are still present on 8 Diagrams—including the signature snippets of kung-fu-movie dialogue—and on a few tracks RZA sticks to his old minimalist production style. Standouts include "Windmill," where Raekwon, GZA, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and Cappadonna make a show of high-powered lyrical dexterity over the guitar riff from Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang," and "Gun Will Go," where a slow, sparse loop of ominous bass and icy guitar makes Raekwon, Method Man, and Masta Killa sound menacing no matter what they say.
Method Man's performances are the biggest surprise on the album. On his own he's delivered two consecutive discs of lame, lazy-sounding commercial hip-hop—2004's Tical 0: The Prequel and 2006's 4:21...the Day After—but he's the MVP of 8 Diagrams, breaking out of the gate with the first verse of the lead cut, "Campfire," and reviving the brisk, natural flow and effortlessly clever wordplay of his mid-90s heyday for the rest of the album. Raekwon and Masta Killa also deliver their share of lyrical darts, and RZA's solo track, "Sunlight," which is reminiscent of his classic 1997 cut "Tragedy" (from the Rhyme& Reason soundtrack), proves again that he sounds best rapping alone.
Cappadonna, on the other hand, sounds like a rank amateur—in stark contrast to his star-making turn on "Winter Warz," from Ghostface's Ironman. And GZA, disappointingly, continues his downward slide, rapping like he's on Xanax—his sleepy flow no longer has the quiet intensity that once made him the clan's best MC.
The Wu-Tang Clan as a whole has deteriorated—strife among members, prison terms, and the untimely death of ODB have all taken their toll, and as a result there have been not only lackluster group albums but also subpar side projects like Raekwon's new Ice Water crew. Through everything Ghostface Killah has remained the one relatively consistent member. Many consider him singlehandedly responsible for resurrecting the clan with his incredible sophomore solo album, 2000's Supreme Clientele, which reinforced the group's vintage sound (courtesy RZA and Wu affiliate Mathematics) with able beats from outside talent like Carlos "Six July" Broady. While Method Man was the mainstream face of the group, with his movie and TV roles, Ghostface was the one who kept us hoping that it would one day return to its former glory—and 2001's Bulletproof Wallets and 2004's The Pretty Toney Album kept that hope on life support.
But Fishscale, which dropped in early '06, was incredibly overrated—though Ghost had steadily evolved from esoteric Five Percenter rhetoric to more satisfyingly narrative rhymes, he seemed to have simultaneously lost his good taste in beats. His latest, The Big Doe Rehab, doesn't reverse either trend. Ghost works with relatively unknown producers here, but they take bold chances like they think they're Kanye West—and needless to say, they're not. Ghost himself continues his bad habit of rhyming over practically untouched soul records: on Pretty Toney it was the Delfonics' "La La Means I Love You" (on "Holla") and on Rehab it's Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover" (on "Supa GFK"). Soul records are the cornerstone of hip-hop, but there's a reason most producers use only breakbeats and sampled loops—rhyming over unaltered classics is definitely pretentious and arguably blasphemous.
Ghost's distinctive high-pitched voice and agile flow are always appealing, though, even set to weak beats. And he's a deft and evocative storyteller. "Shakey Dog Starring Lolita" is a worthy sequel to Fishscale's "Shakey Dog," and "Yolanda's House," the best cut by far, is full of running-from-the-cops high jinks, with Meth and Raekwon sucked into the pell-mell story. If Ghost had put it on 8 Diagrams, it would've improved the album.
Ghostface will no doubt keep churning out solo records, but it wouldn't surprise me if 8 Diagrams turned out to be the Wu-Tang Clan's swan song. It'll be hard for them to paper over the creative differences that have opened up in the group, and the core members' average age is pushing 40. Should this be all they rapped, though, the Wu-Elements—the collective of "extended family" producers like True Master, Mathematics, Bronze Nazareth, and Cilvaringz—will no doubt keep RZA's original sound alive.
Again, the Wu set the bar so high during their golden age that it's almost impossible for fans not to find fault with anything they do now. But to put it in perspective, two hit-or-miss Wu releases in one month still beats a whole year's worth of "Crank That" and "Lip Gloss." Hands down.v
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