The Wu-Tang Clan's 8 Diagrams: A Preview
Move through any project with logic
First off, and most importantly: The 8 Diagrams exists, and it's already reached some stage of completion, though RZA apparently is still tinkering with it. By all accounts, the album will be ready by the planned November 13 release date, and hopefully the reanimated SRC/Loud label won't push it back anymore. This whole thing is almost impossible to believe, but there it is. Since the release of Iron Flag almost six years ago, nobody's been willing to do anything but tentatively hope for a new Wu-Tang group album. Ol' Dirty Bastard died, the remaining members publicly squabbled amongst themselves, and the entire group had a tough time reuniting for a large-scale tour without at least one member going AWOL at least some of the time. The group signed a one-album deal with SRC late last year, but I can't imagine anyone really fully believed that it would happen. It's happening. Earlier this afternoon, Wu-Tang's publicists set up a listening session for whichever bits and pieces of the album that RZA didn't mind letting us hear. In the fourth-floor screening room in an unobtrusive West Village hotel, a bunch of music writers got together today to hear snippets of eight songs: some as short as one verse, others covering what sounded like just about an entire song. The whole thing was only about twenty minutes long, and I have no idea how representative of the whole those twenty minutes will turn out to be. Maybe they cherry-picked the best individual moments and maybe they just grabbed a bunch of random shards; either one would be well in keeping with Wu-Tang tradition. But I sat and listened to those twenty minutes three times in a row, and I could've done it all day if I didn't have to get back to the office to write it up. If those twenty minutes are any real indication, and I hope to God they are, The 8 Diagrams is going to be a hell of an album.
The preliminary reports on the album were a bit dubious. In one interview, RZA talked about how Raekwon had made fun of him and Method Man for making "some Black Eyed Peas shit," and most of the stories anticipating the album mentioned one song where the Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante and George Harrison's son Dhani would play guitar on a cover of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I don't know if I heard that Black Eyed Peas-esque song today (probably not), but I did hear most of the song with Frusciante and Harrison; the tracklist I got called it "My People Gently Weep," but in his taped intro, RZA himself either called it "The Needle Gently Weeps" or "The Beatle Gently Weeps." Or maybe he actually was saying "the people"; RZA can be tough to understand. Whatever, doesn't matter. The song is amazing, mostly because it sounds like a Wu-Tang song rather than like a classic-rock crossover-attempt. The guitars are there, but they're drowned in the murky, off-key mix, buried under a Fender Rhodes that itself sounds like it's underwater. And Ghostface is on it; the song faded out before his verse was over, but what I heard was an emotional, vividly rendered story about (seriously) going grocery-shopping at Pathmark and spilling milk on his pants.
That brings me to another great thing about The 8 Diagrams: Ghost is on it. Ghost has no-showed some recent Wu-Tang shows, and there have been plenty of rumors that he hasn't been getting along with the rest of the group, that he wouldn't have any verses on the album. But he appears on three of the eight songs I heard, and he's in top form. Actually, everyone is in top form. Raekwon sounds as hard and opaque as he ever has. Method Man has stopped playing the clown, sinking back into the gravelly menacing energy that made him so compelling in the first place. The ODB dedication "Life Changes" could've come off maudlin and cheap if these guys did maudlin and cheap. Instead, it's a touching piece of work, grief-stricken but level-headed. GZA's verse, where he talks about recording in the studio where ODB died, hit me especially hard: "I cried like a baby on my way to his place of death / Hate not being there the moments before he left." And the second-string guys all come hard as fuck, some of them (Inspectah Deck on "Watch Your Mouth," U-God on "Wolves") spitting the best verses I've heard from them in years. For the first time in a long time, every last member of the group has something to prove, and it shows.
Maybe even more importantly, The 8 Diagrams actually sounds like a Wu-Tang album. It's dark and swampy and eerie and gothic and mysterious and heady in a way that, say, Iron Flag wasn't. I don't know if RZA produced the whole thing or not, but all the tracks I heard certainly sounded like RZA tracks: creepy minor-key horror-movie strings, broken pianos, shuffling head-crack drum-loops, ghostly vocal samples, chanted choruses, kung-fu movie dialogue, clashing sword sound-effects, the whole thing. It's not catchy, not at all, but it absorbs. According to one publicist, Cappadonna and Street Life both get verses on the album, but there are no non-Wu guest-rappers. One song, though, immediately jumped out, partly because there's barely any rapping on it. "They Want to Stick Me For My Riches" is an amazing pseudo-reggae soul song with only one rap verse (Meth: "Since mama held me in her arms to tell me / That it's a cold world, I always packed heat"). The rest of the time, some singer wails intense and paranoid personal-memoir shit about coming up hard and poor and desperate; lush strings well up at all the right moments, but RZA keeps the sound low-key and dark and evil the whole time. Nobody from the group was at the listening session, and none of the publicists could tell me who the singer was. In a way, that's almost better. The Wu-Tang Clan should be mysterious and inaccessible; they should be able to bring in some incredible guest-singer without actually letting anyone know who that singer is. The 8 Diagrams sounds like an album out of time, and I have no idea how they expect it to do in a commercial marketplace that's become unrecognizable since the time these guys were able to sneak past the gatekeepers and become unlikely pop stars. But fuck it: it's a thrill to hear these guys, every last one of these guys, get back to the stuff they do best, markets be damned. If this album hits stores sounding anything like what I heard today, it'll be a gift to a lot of people who have waited a long time.