Do we need the Wu-Tang Clan? In August, Clan sensei RZA begged the question with a self-justifying statement promising that the Wu’s fifth studio album, 8 Diagrams, would “revive the spirit and the economics and bring in a wave of energy that has lately disappeared,” thus saving hip-hop. Provocatively, he also asked a question that gave 8 Diagrams a heavy burden to bear: “How could hip-hop be dead if Wu Tang is forever?” It’s been a long time, but credit is still due to the Wu-Tang Clan for nine-handedly weirding the artform with the release of 1994’s Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers). The singular impact and enduring success of that bizarre, seemingly anti-pop record is what gives RZA license to pontificate. Importantly, it also gave solid roots to some of modern popular music’s leading eccentrics (including Ghostface Killah and Ol’ Dirty Bastard), as well as leading to the dozens of above-average records created by the various constituent pieces of rap’s favorite Voltron.
What he’s trying to say is, if the Wu-Tang Clan could save hip-hop from MC Hammer, why not from Nick Cannon? Unfortunately, unless RZA owes someone scary money, 8 Diagrams isn’t going to be saving anyone. By turns a workmanlike and typically stony Wu record, a hysterically overcooked attempt to integrate the otherwise tasty stylings of guests including John Frusciante, Erykah Badu, and George Clinton into the kung pao sauce, and a surprisingly tender tribute to a fallen friend, the record nevertheless fails to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s start with the ugly: the noodly, slight, easy-listening, Beatles-slaughtering “The Heart Gently Weeps,” which wastes both Frusciante and Badu (who sounds quite a way off her best form) and stands as probably the most appalling hip-hop appropriation of a rock classic to date. Which is quite an accomplishment. It’s by far the most out-of place song here; sadly, it’s also structured as the centerpiece of the album. Three cheers for the iPod era, then: Just delete and carry on. The other big curveball, “Stick Me for My Riches,” begins with a buttery-fine soul verse, sung by Gerald Alston of ’70s R&B vocalists the Manhattans, expressing the pressures of ghetto success. The track is saved by RZA’s sleek, ominous production, but the vocal comes across as stodgy, and the theme is pretty stale to boot. There are literally dozens of other songs (Outkast’s “Red Velvet” is a personal favorite) that deal with the same subject matter in a more interesting way.
Sadly, when RZA isn’t attempting to tone-deafly integrate other people’s old sounds into his old sounds, he just sticks with his old sounds. 8 Diagrams is, of course, rife with samples from kung fu movies, tinkly piano, and ominously atmospheric keys, and to be fair, this classicism pays off in places. Album opener “Campfire” features a stomping boom-bap beat sandwiched between Chinese-flavored admonitions to personal betterment as well as a predictably awesome Ghostface verse. “Life Changes,” a surprisingly heartfelt elegy to ODB that only Ghostface skips out on, hilariously compares the departed crackhead-cum-genius to Jesus and sounds like it was chipped off the same block as Method Man’s classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Elsewhere, the considerably less star-dappled one-two punch of “Rushing Elephants” and “Unpredictable” is a good example of the reason why the Rolling Stones still play four-minute dirty rock songs. The formula ain’t broken and it occasionally still cracks with some of that old pharmaceutical majesty. But, you know, Mick Jagger’s quite a ways past saving rock n’ roll these days.