In the years since the Wu-Tang’s most recent studio album, 2001’s middle-of-the-road Iron Flags, the group has gone through public infighting, various label disputes and, of course, the death of a founding member. Given all of the obstacles, it took guts (and a lot of coordination) not only to make another album but also to make one that would attempt a return to form. And 8 Diagrams is good, worthy of the heavy anticipation leading to its release. Considering how much face was at stake, that’s actually saying quite a bit.
The group delivers some inspired performances over production that tends to be more akin to The W (2000) than anything in contemporary hip-hop. The beats were divvied up among several producers, but the result is a generally cohesive blend that’s dark and moody and at times inaccessible. And lyrically most of the Clan is in top form. Method Man, Ghostface Killah and (somewhat surprisingly) Cappadonna open the album up with "Campfire," a brief track that shows the emcees as hungry as they’ve been in years. Ghost, who’s been no stranger to the limelight lately — be it with critical acclaim or showing signs of inner-group competition — is featured on four of the first five tracks and then disappears. Meth, on the other hand, is one of the album’s main characters, contributing to more than half the tracks and riding high off last year’s 4:21 . . . The Day After.
There are, of course, missteps. "Get Them Out Ya Way Pa" is slightly aimless, and single "The Heart Gently Weeps" got a lot of pre-release attention because of its so-called Beatles sampling, but that really turned out to be an interpolation performed by George Harrison’s son Dhani and a subdued John Frusciante. The beat is excellent and so are the verses, but it’s a bit of a disappointment when compared to its virtual blueprint, Ghostface’s "Black Cream," off his Hidden Darts mixtape from earlier this year. Likewise, "Starter" recycles its beat from one of the lead tracks on RZA’s Afro Samurai soundtrack, also released earlier in the year.
But then again, perhaps context played little in the assembly of 8 Diagrams. For the most part, the lyricism avoids being overly topical. There are few outside collaborators and even less attraction to any serious gimmicky marketing. Perhaps the idea was to deliver an album that is timeless in the sense that a Tarantino film can be, where it doesn’t matter when it was recorded or who sampled what first. When looked at from afar, 8 Diagrams is far more of a success than it is a failure, and years from now, when it is fully removed from the drama and hype, it just may sound even better.