8 Diagrams: RZA's Drug-Rap Masterwork
And I might not even be overreacting
8 Diagrams is about the millionth Wu-Tang album to start with a dialog sample from a kung-fu movie, but this one is different from those that came before. RZA has complicated reasons for just about all of his production decisions, but I have this idea that he usually just picked out the kung-fu samples that sounded the most badass. The sample at the beginning of 8 Diagrams doesn't sound badass. No swords clash, and no threats are made. Instead, a teacher tells a nasal-voiced student how to be a good man, telling him to keep control of himself and to stay patient. Those of us outside Wu-Tang's inner circle can only make fogged-up guesses about the group's internal dynamics, but by all accounts RZA's always been the crew's undisputed leader, and his leadership must've faced its challenges over time. In the documentary Rock the Bells, when the concert promoter was having a stroke worrying about how he'd get ODB to the venue, RZA was the guy he went to to smooth the situation out. And the crew's unlikely period of commercial dominance only started to flag when members of the group started making albums that weren't completely under RZA's control. To tell such a talented and chaotic group of rappers what to do, RZA must have unreal leadership skills, and I get the feeling that he's been repeating that refrain about control and patience more and more often lately. The fact that 8 Diagrams even exists is some kind of miracle, and it's even more amazing when you consider that not one song on the entire album has the faintest chance of becoming a crossover hit. 8 Diagrams is a deeply weird album, a total immersion in weed-fried mythology and willfully obscure tangled-up black psychedelia. It's clearly the album that RZA wanted to make, and recent developments show that he may have burned up all his goodwill with the rest of the group in the process.
Raekwon and Ghostface have already voiced frustration with the group's recent direction, but I always thought that frustration boiled down to money issues and nothing else. This interview surprised me; according to Raekwon, his problems with RZA are more aesthetic than financial. At his best, Raekwon is one of the wooziest, hardest to follow rappers working, but even he apparently doesn't want any part of an album this obtuse. "RZA's trying to create to much of a orchestra," he says. "He's trying to do too much of this guitar shit, like he's got a guitar on his fucking back ... It's more or less like, yo, I don't want to be here doing this because this is not the vibe I want. It's his vibe. He's like a hip-hop hippie right now." RZA is definitely somewhere near crazy, and his solo showcase "Sunlight" may be the strangest thing on the whole album: RZA ranting brain-melting crackpot-philosophy silliness over humming soul-samples and harpsichord drones. I've never much liked RZA as a rapper because he always sounded totally content to ignore his own beats, but "Sunrise" hardly has any drums, and so his vocal comes off like urgent, drunk spoken-word poetry. "I been highly misunderstood by those that met us / They had ears of corn and heads of lettuce," he says, and the funny part is that he doesn't even treat it like a punchline; he bleats it out with raw sincerity like it's the most important thing he ever said, which is how he says everything. 8 Diagrams is full of dizzy musical left-turns: underwater Lee Hazlewood guitars, riotous out-of-tune horn-stabs, thrilling ominous spaghetti-western whistle-loops. RZA's bragged that "The Heart Gently Weeps" is the first rap song with a legally-cleared Beatles sample, but even with a guest guitar-noodles from a Chili Pepper and George Harrison's son, the track still sounds like burbling mud. Only about half the tracks even bother with hooks, and virtually none of them have any recognizable structure at all. After a few listens, I've only just begun to absorb the actual lyrics; the pure auditory experience of hearing these guys going hard on such bugged-out tracks has been more than enough to keep my brain spinning.
So RZA's putting together the first Wu-Tang group album in six years, and he's decided to make it a dense, inaccessible hunk of drugged-out space-rap; no wonder his troops are restless. Raekwon's put forward the idea of putting out another Wu-Tang group album without RZA, something I can barely imagine ever happening. Any discontent that Rae and Ghost might've felt about the album doesn't manifest itself in the actual music, though. Both of those guys rap hard throughout, as does everyone else in the group. Ghost has a particularly great narrative verse on "The Heart Gently Weeps" about beating up a gun-toting would-be killer in the middle of a Pathmark. The real welcome surprise on 8 Diagrams, though, is Method Man, who just raps out of his mind whenever anyone puts a mic near him. On "Stick Me For My Riches," he comes on roaring after a couple of minutes of tortured 70s soul with a riveting, desperate up-from-nothing verse. I seriously thought Meth might never return to his former glory; he's seemed so mad at the world over the last couple of years, but suddenly he's just breathing fire. One of the welcome byproducts of the great rap sales decline has been the sudden, unexpectedly hungry comebacks from older rappers who have seen their crossover attempts crash and burn; Busta Rhymes is on a similar tear right now. But Busta Rhymes doesn't have an album full of heady, druggy beats the way Meth does here, and Meth makes the most of his shot. The things that Raekwon doesn't like about 8 Diagrams are the things that make it something like a masterpiece. At least during the recording of the album, all the Wu guys seemed to realize how great they sound over RZA's bent orchestral beats, and they stepped it up accordingly. And even if RZA never manages to get these guys back under his spell, the end result may be worth it. It's going to take a long, long time to untangle 8 Diagrams, but even a few days after it leaked, it's pretty evident that we won't be hearing another rap record this bent and fascinating anytime soon.