Incredibly difficult albums sometimes make it equally hard to voice their descriptions and critiques. Given time to gestate words for 8 Diagrams—likely the final studio release en masse from Wu-Tang Clan—an apt description appears from an unlikely source: Jack Black’s joke-rock outfit Tenacious D. Yeah, we know, just hold on and hear us out for a moment.
At the end of the Aughts the winds of hip-hop history blow the Wu together for a pivotal purpose. The Staten Island crew want to transcend their individual careers and projects, rap’s changing landscape and above all the death of their show-stopping brother-in-arms Ol’ Dirty Bastard, in order to once again master the hip-hop kung fu delineated on 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Comparisons to intervening releases like Iron Flag are irrelevant; few artists have such a first impression to live up to, let alone the wherewithal to try multiple times. 8 Diagrams may not be the W’s worst attempt to recapture past glories, but from the RZA’s increasingly elaborate arrangements to the contributions from the remaining seven rappers and their guests, it may be the saddest and most frustrating.
Granted, the Wu have moments where they damn near improve upon their own original. “Stick Me for My Riches” is a new jack swing epic with The Manhattans’ Gerald Alston and half the Clan dealing in Biggie Smalls’ street paranoia. Funk godfather George Clinton lobbies to be ODB v2.0, with a bugged-out vamp in “Tar Pit” and the chorus over the moaning Wu war chant of “Wolves,” even as acknowledgments of the real ODB sound hackneyed and worn.
The frenetic lyrical pace of “Take It Back” perfectly matches its crime-drama bassline, but then the next track, “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa,” simply repeats the formula. The RZA, GZA, Raekwon, and Masta Killa shine on “Rushing Elephants” amid minor-key orchestral loops and disparate cultural references, yet the much-ballyhooed Beatles homage “The Heart Gently Weeps” is the Wu catalog’s cluttered nadir, embarrassing not just Ghostface Killah and Method Man but Erykah Badu, John Frusciante, and George Harrison’s son Dhani.
Polarizing fans and its own players, this album shows the W may indeed be victims of an industry and a culture that’s moved on from the concept of needing an army to dominate rap. Wu-Tang Clan no longer carry the mantle “Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” downgraded to—as their own song says—merely “Unpredictable.” To appropriate the sentiments of Tenacious D, 8 Diagrams sounds like a tribute to The Greatest Rap Album in the World, and on many levels the songs here don’t actually sound anything like those songs.