George Booker (VA) – Its fitting that Ol’ Dirty Bastard was not shot, he just ODBed. A personification of the manic extreme of the collective brilliant schitzophrenia that is the Wu Tang aesthetic, he was within himself a blown up tragic illustration of a truism: nothing can fuck with Wu Tang but Wu Tang itself. The tabloid bickering among the 8 diagrams that survive are shadows of the epic war of drugs n’ demons that consumed Mr. Russell Jones. No punk ass stick up kid yearning to fellate Sean Combs one day took ODB down. He did that shit himself, because there was nobody else big enough.
A lot has happened since those mid 90s salad days of Wu dominance, when the nucleus was loyally in the thrall of Robert Digg’s 5 year plan that culminated in “Wu Tang Forever”, the best tight 45 minute album of the 90s (yes, even better than “Achtung Baby” and leagues above “OK Computer”) that just happened to be an overwhelming, exhausting double album. GZA occasionally released very good collections laced with gems while Ghostface tirelessly released classics that got far more bloggage than sales in the proccess of becoming the greatest rapper alive. A hodgepodge elsewhere, from solid surprises to dismal dissapointments. Method Man went Hollywood but nobody was mad because he always seemed to be the frivolous one, and was indeed sexy, funny, charismatic, and all of those things you tell people to flatter them. Tangential cheers to him for “421: The Day After” for completing his first good solo album (he split “Blackout” with platonic explosive character rapper/smoking buddy Redman).
Meanwhile, RZA went off and got enlightened (moreso), actively seeking out new challenges and submitting to mentors he admired. His initial cycle of Wu productions kind of started the precedent for hip hop reviews that abused, Roget style, variations on the adjective “cinematic.” These releases recast the oppressive reality of poor urban life in a mythical analog primarily informed by Hong Kong martial arts movies that liberally dished out dime store eastern philosophy. Given these signals, there is nothing untrue or suspect of the RZA using his wealth and fame to become a film composer, apprentice to directors such as Jarmusch, Tarantino, and Wu, and spend time in Asia studying with masters of introspective ass kicking.
And yet, herein lies the conflict. For following his muse the RZA has been criticized for becoming detached from where he came from (which was already pretty fucking weird, but apparently feudal Japanese tropes incorporated into hardcore NYC hip hop is now the most earthbound thing in the word), leading the new Wu Tang Clan album astray into a zone that was too soft, too Hollywood, too psychedelic. Yes, “8 Diagrams” is the album RZA plays guitar on and collaborates with two silly Georges, Clinton and Drakoulias. Naysaying is to be expected from the malcontent internet, but also prominently surfaced from sources no less credible than Ghostface and Raekwon (who stooped as low as to call RZA a “hip hop hippie”, years after I thought De La Soul cleared up that conflict).
This is the first and I hope the last time I will have to write this: Ghostface Killah and Raekwon are fucking wrong. I’m not trying to fuck with Wu Tang. I feel like Nelson Muntz when a bizarre “Simpsons” plot led him to strike Drederick Tatum because of a biological imperitive, all the while knowing how wrong and dangerous it was. In fact, regardless of the argument, there is only one person I can summon myself to side with in opposition to Ghost and Rae. That man is the RZA. That’s who I’m speaking for. Only the Wu can fuck with the Wu.
“8 Diagrams” is a great album that only benefits from RZA’s explorations. In addition to his actual accomplishments, he stands a genius for managing to lead, for a long time, and to this day occasionally unite and coordinate 8 to 9 of the best vocalists and writers (as well as 8 or 9 of the most flagrant personalities) into a single brand. The only people who’ve managed to breifly challenge his ability to bring out the best of his emcees and make them sound eternal are fellow geniuses (the Neptunes on ODB’s “N**** Please”) or collections of them (MF Doom, Pete Rock, J Dilla and Just Blaze on Ghostface Killah’s “Fishscale”). These brief spots don’t rival the quantity, coherence, or indelible eccentricity of the RZA’s chemistry and leadership. In the task of managing and showcasing the whole of the remaining Clan in peak form, “8 Diagrams” is an unqualified success.
Then there is the music, which is unexpected, but not really. It sprawls broader than ever, utterly unpredictable and slathered with more random space, conceptual flight of fancy, instrumental freedom, straight singing, gonzo spontaneity, and yes, psychedelia than ever. Strangely, this Wu Tang bitch’s brew managed to imbed the long verse narcotic metronome within all of this. I’ll certainly sound like a hippie trying to encapsulate the dense, limitless world the deceptively detailed soundscapes here create, but its still an album full of hard motherfuckers rapping in a relentless string of bizarre, terrifying and sublime verses I haven’t even begun to wrap my mind around. Lyrically and musically, this is a deep album, destined to unfold perpetually. Repeat listenings have thusfar only revealed more.
Like all of the great Wu Tang releases, its going to take years to unpeel this, but it packs an immediate, visceral fascination. RZA could have made what we had all imagined on our mental mixtape and called it “Curse of Iron Flag v. Fishscale”, but he has made something entirely new and more ambitious that still is entirely consistent with his known fascinations. Not everybody will immediately like it (and, of all mass media symbols, Wu Tang is perhaps the oddest and most unscrutable, so many will never like it).
Apparently, Ghostface and Raekwon are not yet thrilled with the final product. Despite being familiar with the Wu Tang Clan enough to actually be in it and the most important components to boot, I would argue that they haven’t caught up to it yet. I think they will someday. When the Wu initially exploded, I didn’t get it. It was scary and inaccessible, something for kids a few years older than me (I think I was 11 when “36 Chambers” dropped). It took some conditioning to enter the Wu. “8 Diagrams” is a departure, but it is an expansion rather than a funeral, although it closes with the most touching and mindblowing eulogy I’ve ever heard, and my grandmother died this year. 14 years into this entity, however, I can’t imagine music without it.
Seriously, ignore the negative hype and the RZA suspicions. “8 Diagrams” is amazing. Perhaps you won’t agree, but I defy you not to think its at least fascinating and worth listening to again. Again? Again and again. I compel you: don’t sleep.