No Wu-Tang Clan album after its first album has been universally beloved; like Illmatic, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is a classic built in entirely unique circumstances that can never be replicated. But the Wu’s fifth and most recent album, 8 Diagrams, arrived to particularly bizarre reception.
It didn’t sell much and critical reaction was mixed. Entertainment Weekly called it “a drab dilution of the Wu’s signature sample-heavy, raucous sound.” But 8 Diagrams’ harshest reviews came from the eight other members of the group (counting Cappadonna), who claimed its producer and ostensible leader RZA hijacked the album with a sound they didn’t like and felt fans wouldn’t identify with.
In an interview with Miss Info, Raekwon the Chef spoke at length on the situation, saying that they felt the album had too much live instrumentation (particularly too much guitar) and felt rushed. “This is not the vibe I want; it’s his vibe,” Rae said, adding that they tried to communicate this to RZA and he ignored them and pressed ahead. Wu-Tang standard-bearer Ghostface Killah made similar statements in the press.
Listening to the album now, it’s easy to see what Raekwon was talking about. The album features Wu signifiers like kung-fu movie samples and dense lyrics over dark beats, but strange elements stand out in the production, like the wandering bass line and lazy crash symbol in “Get Them Out The Way Pa.” “Unpredictable” sounds like the soundtrack to a suspenseful sequence in a "James Bond" movie with rappers stranded in the middle of the chaos, and then you have a batshit-crazy chorus from someone named “Dexter Wiggle.”
“The Heart Gently Weeps,” which rams together Erykah Badu, Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante, and Beatle George Harrison’s son Dhani for a pointless cover of his father’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” probably had Rae and Ghost seeing red, incredulous they were being forced to rap over this car crash.
Lyrically, RZA sounds worlds removed from the other members; while they spit the usual gritty crime narratives, he delivers lines like, “Lord of the Wu-Tang sword, know what that means? Like J.R. Tolkien, it’s the Lord of the Rings” (this didn’t help counter Rae’s characterization of him as “a hip-hop hippie”).
On “Sunlight,” he wanders off by himself for an entire track and appears to complain about the type of musical close-mindedness he was encountering from his fellow Wu members: “Yo, I’ve been highly misunderstood by those who met us. They had ears of corn and heads of lettuce.”
In the midst of all this chaos, most people missed something; 8 Diagrams is actually the Wu’s best album in a decade (even Rae had to reluctantly admit, “The album ain’t weak; it’s just not what y’all be expectin’”). Regardless of whether or not the overall sound of the music was universally agreed upon, it brings together every member of the Wu-Tang Clan—nine men with busy, often conflicting schedules—and they all sound fantastic.
And since this was the Wu’s first album since founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard died three years earlier, it served as a funeral of sorts. On the final track, “Life Changes,” the group’s surviving members movingly pay tribute to ODB in verse, sharing very personal remembrances of what it felt like when they first got the tragic news of his death.