8 Diagrams is never going to be mistaken for a secretly great Wu-Tang album, but it was an important one.
Few people seemed to notice or care when the Wu-Tang Clan’s 2007 album 8 Diagrams went missing from all the major streaming platforms, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Despite solid critical reception upon release, the LP is generally regarded as a dramatic low point in the larger Wu pantheon, both by die hard fans and the majority of the clan itself. The chief criticism was of RZA’s production and how far his experimental nature had strayed from the recognizable grit that made the collective so iconic to begin with. The sandpaper slap and razor sharp, sinister tenor of RZA’s most formative beats was replaced with a more ponderous approach to hip-hop. This moody minimalism may not have been ideal, but this being the first Wu album produced after Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death, it makes sense that RZA tried to drag the team kicking and screaming into new directions.
Things start off well, believe it or not. The opening track “Campfire” is a highlight and a master class in atmosphere. RZA recasts the lyrics from Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” into a haunting prologue for this murky, off-kilter take on what audiences expected from late ‘00s Wu-Tang. The drums and the chops and the menace are there but shrouded in this smoky air of uncertainty. The next two cuts, “Take It Back” and “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa” are the most traditional tracks and, unsurprisingly, they’re the most confident and assured primary RZA naysayers Raekwon and Ghostface sound on the whole album. Even “Rushing Elephants” isn’t a drastic departure, with Rae and GZA trading barbs and darts over a Morricone sample, but it’s not as pugilistic as one might expect.
But the middle of the album more radically showcases the foibles of RZA’s approach. “Unpredictable” is a raucous affair that features a lively verse from Inspectah Deck, but its hook leaves something to be desired. There’s something stilted and amelodic about the RZA shouting “pretty Wu-Tang is unpredictable” that seems purposefully anti-catchy, as though the mastermind felt an anthem coming along and leapt in the opposite direction. Similarly, “Starter,” while textured and exciting from a production standpoint, possesses a decidedly un-Wu chorus from Sunny Valentine and Tash Mahogany that would sound better on a Love & Hip Hop reality star’s throwaway mixtape. RZA’s repeated stretching would have been fine if everyone had been on the same page, but trying to be different for difference’s sake lead to muddled results.
This is never more evident than on standout oddity “The Heart Gently Weeps.” In the pre-release buzz, a Beatles sampling track featuring guitar work from John Frusciante and George Harrison’s own son Dhani sounded like a fascinating concept, but in execution, having Raekwon and Ghostface spit their laconic street tales over such an ethereal piece of instrumentation with Erykah Badu’s silken backing vocals just doesn’t quite gel. Rae, specifically, seems ill suited, though Ghost’s peculiar gift for painting a picture (“I brought my bitch out to Pathmark, she’s pushin’ the cart/ Headed to aisle four, damn I got milk on my Clark’s”) succeeds in sticking out. But Method Man, as he does elsewhere on the album (particularly “Stick Me for My Riches”), proves the most versatile, finding a pocket and rhyming with a deft confidence his compatriots have trouble displaying outside of their comfort zones.
RZA still does brilliant things with string arrangements on tracks like “Windmill,” but the two songs that prove the most successful work so well for differing reasons. Centerpiece “Wolves,” with George Clinton’s spooky fairy tale interludes, feels like a predecessor to the modern cloud rap. It comes off like the kind of wicked cypher you love with rap team-ups, but there’s a strangeness surrounding the sparse instrumentation that gives it an awkward charm.
Still, it’s the sole track dedicated to eulogizing ODB that turns out the finest. “Life Changes,” anchored by a soulful beat and pensive drums, gives every member a platform to wrestle with the loss of their brother. One might assume it’s the best because of its weighty subject matter, but really, it’s the one track where everyone is a united front. No miscued influences or questionable motivations, no oddball sonic leanings. Nothing but a group who’ve been together for years pouring their souls out over losing their most enigmatic compatriot.
8 Diagrams is never going to be mistaken for a secretly great Wu-Tang album, but it was an important one. It’s got some serious high points, but more importantly, the lessons learned from its missteps birthed Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II and the Rae/Ghostface/Method Man record Wu Massacre, where RZA revisited a more traditional sound to crowd pleasing results, proving Wu-Tang really is forever.