On Amazon, this is credited to “Wu Tang Clan and Rza”
I might just have to do one of these every time an album I love comes out. Keep in mind that I could just as easily do a list of ten least favorite moments: the Chinese speech at the end of “Life Changes” that lasts forever, Method Man bringing sexy back, “Somebody let the monkeys out the cage! Somebody let the monkeys out the cage!” But this album draws me in further every time I hear it, and this seems like a good excuse to write about it without bringing up Rae and Ghost’s increasingly dumb jihad against it.
1. “Stick Me for My Riches,” 0:54-1:00. So the catchiest, most accessible song on Wu-Tang’s big comeback record is a six-minute hood-is-dying epic with a guest vocal from the 65-year-old former lead singer of the Manhattans and no actual rapping for the first minute and a half. It’s an inspired choice. Gerald Alston has the kind of grainy, raspy grown-man David Ruffin voice that’s just completely extinct from R&B these days, and he just kills it over that haunted RZA beat; the whole thing reminds me of the Horace Andy tracks from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. This is the part where the key changes and the horns come in and Alston just starts frothing: “Now with success, I’ve become a target / They wanna set me up / I guess more money equals more problems,” and I can’t listen to it while I’m walking down the street without punching the air and screaming along, which makes me look like a crazy homeless man.
2. “The Heart Gently Weeps,” 1:36-2:51. Ghostface’s verse here is a totally richly textured and beautifully observed narrative, and I like it better than any of the story-songs on Big Doe Rehab. In his 8 Diagrams post, Brandon Soderberg has a great line about how Ghost’s verse here is “next to the hood.” The guy who tries to kill Ghost in Pathmark is mad because Ghost “murdered his uncle Tim / I sold him a bag of dope, his wife came and copped again.” So Ghost is there in the moment, but he also recognizes that he basically killed this kid’s family just by selling them drugs, which lends a whole new level of moral complication to the story. It’s a dark moment, but then Ghost busts out this ridiculous cartoon falsetto (“You better kill me! / You know you booty!”), and it’s just fucking hysterical and overblown. Ghost’s story about fighting the kid in the grocery store has all the telling little details that only Ghost seems to be able to conjure these days: “In the aisle busting them paper towels and wiping my Wallies down,” “shots was whizzing, hitting Clorex bottles.” Ghost delivers the whole thing in this great urgent breathless voice, and he even gives it a satisfying ending. Nobody tells stories like Ghost, and when the music industry completely dies, I’ll be buying his novels.
3. “Wolves,” 0:21-0:57. When that godawful George Clinton hook dissolves, and RZA’s mariachi whistles and humming Ennio Morricone choral moans come in, U-God jumps on the track and just murders it. U-God has always been a really stealthy rapper, the type where you might not realize how good he is on certain songs until years later. But on a track as weird and esoteric as this one, he brings it down to earth with this great authoritative baritone verse, not really talking about anything in particular but sounding absolutely badass and concrete: “I do the honor, the Shaolin bomber / Sharkskin armor, I bring the drama.” U-God’s always been a role player in the group, but here he’s just insanely spry and on-beat. Out of everyone else in the group, U-God probably has the most to prove on 8 Diagrams, and he steps up and goes in hard every time anyone lets him near a mic.
4. “Life Changes,” 2:02–2:13. “Life Changes,” the ODB tribute, hasn’t grown on me the way so many of the other songs on this album have; it’s too long and chaotic to really come off as a moving tribute to the one guy who didn’t make it. But GZA has a couple of utterly heartbreaking lines where he talks about recording the song in the same studio before he died: “I cried like a baby on the way to hate place of death / Hate not being there the minutes before he left / Now I’m in the booth, ten feet from where he lay dead / I think about him on this song and what he might’ve said.” GZA sounds haunted and broken, like he’s not sure if he sound really say what he’s thinking and like he might cry if he keeps talking.
5. “Campfire,” 0:58-1:21. After the kung-fu sample, the album really begins with a decaying zombie-movie synth-tone with ghostly druidic backing vocals gurgling underneath and a ticking clock and a few floating ambient sound-effects. And then this titanic snare kicks in, bringing with it a mournful violin sample and Method Man, who sounds totally confident and reinvigorated, back on top of his game once again. The Meth verse that follows might include that near-unforgivable “sexy back” line, but without that it’s a shockingly fierce performance from a guy who seemed lost to that untenable middle ground between rap and Hollywood. This opening works so well because it’s so sneaky and minor-key, RZA signaling that we’re back in bent expressionistic goth-rap territory, that this album isn’t going to be Wu-Tang’s effort to catch up with rap; it’s going to be the album that forces rap to catch back up with Wu-Tang.
6. “Weak Spot,” 1:48-1:58. In the middle of Raekwon’s verse, this disgusting fuzzed-out distorto-bass suddenly appears, sounding like something RZA pulled from a mid-90s Unsane record. It just thuds away for a couple of bars, and then it disappears. We never hear it again. 8 Diagrams is full of perverse and effective musical left-turns like this; I don’t ever quite feel settled when I’m listening to it.
7. “Gun Will Go,” 2:28-3:02. Another left-turn: as GZA’s verse begins, the song’s great little eerie circular guitar-figure gives way to an old rattling Marley Marl-esque breakbeat, buried under layers of tape hiss, like the ghost of 80s rap floating through.
8. “Rushing Elephants,” 1:47-1:49. RZA: “Strangle cold bottles of Beck’s, like a vexed German.” A vexed German? Means nothing, sounds awesome. I should also mention that “Weak Spot” has maybe the most on-beat RZA verse ever. Weird how the guy who makes all the beats is also the most likely to ignore them when he’s rapping.
9. “Take It Back,” 2:45-2:48. Ghost: “We like rebel niggas powdered-up wildin’ in the streets of Liberia.” Why Liberia? Because it rhymes with “area” and “ain’t tryna hear ya,” and because it sounds like the hardest place on earth. Ghost is as good at coming up with incurably badass one-liners as he is at screaming frantic crime narratives.
10. “Stick Me for My Riches,” 2:29-2:31. I feel bad not mentioning Meth’s verse here, since it’s probably his best in years. But the opening of Deck’s verse is just so hard and iconic, and it’s the one line from the album that probably gets stuck in my head more than any of the others: “In my city gritty blocks / Little love, plenty cops.” Deck delivers most of his verse in those clipped shortened lines, and the level of alliteration and internal rhyme is just off the charts.