Enter the 37th Chamber

The new Wu isn't nearly as bad (or bizarre) as some of its rappers would have you believe

Right now, all we know about Wu-Tang Clan's 8 Diagrams—their first album in six years—is that at least two members (Ghostface Killah and Raekwon) feel it's not traditionally gritty enough for Wu fans, leaving RZA, still the mastermind, stuck in the unenviable position of defending his digital plans for worldwide re-domination to analog muhfuckas. This schism reflects the only real conversation to have on hiphop at the cusp of 2008: Are you for rap's evolution or against it?

Covering A Tribe Called Quest's breakup back in '98, I lamented that Q-Tip & Co. couldn't put out a triphop album for fear of audience revolt. However horrible or fantastic Goldie-produced ATCQ music might've been, at least it would've been different—as adventurous as their jazz-informed debut was to begin with, as chance-taking as De La Soul, Run-DMC, or any of the other golden-age MCs were for their time. But what's funny about the Wu's in-house objections to Diagrams' eclecticism is that it's hard to imagine a more conventional Wu-Tang Clan album. Kung-fu movie samples slide into place, RZA builds Five-Percenter knowledge on "Sunlight," U-God flaunts just-the-guys "fuck that bitch" misogyny per usual on "Take It Back," and likewise, Ghostface lets a "faggot" slip on "The Heart Gently Weeps." Throughout, the Wu brings '97 back, give or take some electric guitar from John Frusciante and occasional live drums to make their sound slightly more indie-rock-friendly.

Message-board fighting words: In retrospect, the double-disc Wu-Tang Forever stands as the group's best work, especially considering the shoddy material (The W, Iron Flag) that followed. But if you think Jay-Z or Kanye West put out the best commercial hiphop this year, know that 8 Diagrams is at least as good as either American Gangster or Graduation. Method Man is in top form: When he identifies himself as "the most talented rap motherfucker you ever listened to," you feel his confidence. And the whole unit sounds refreshed by reunifying with each other and re-entering familiar RZA territory. The Abbot's beats benefit from co-producer Easy Mo Bee (on the highlight "Take It Back"), but not much could be done for the overwrought "The Heart Gently Weeps" (co-produced by George Drakoulias). Wu covering the Beatles was probably a bad idea from jump (George Harrison never had kind words for hiphop, incidentally), but the track nonetheless makes the case for Erykah Badu—who sings the chorus—getting more Mary J. Blige–like work as a rap-hook songstress.

Furthermore, the sampling is never obvious here: You may rack your brain over the percussion effect in "Gun Will Go" for days before finally recognizing Rakim's "Follow the Leader." George Clinton spits a funk-gobbledygook hook to "Wolves," which is structured just like the Beastie Boys' late-period "Right Right Now Now," but RZA maybe figures nobody's heard it. "Unpredictable" shows off great metal-guitar flourishes; "Life Changes" is a fitting ODB tribute that lacks rhymes from Ghostface, who may have been in big-doe rehab at the time. 8 Diagrams would've been great product for the music-industry machine that existed during the Wu-Tang Forever days, but with limited video outlets, corny radio programming, and Christmas 2007 destined to go down as the last gasp of the CD, whither the Wu?

 
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