Gangstarr’s Moment of Truth album began with Guru describing “elevation” in their music. “What we do, we update our formulas. We have certain formulas, but we update ‘em with the times.” By now anyone can identify the Wu-Tang formula: gritty beats, thick atmosphere, samples from martial-arts films, and MC after MC delivering dense, tough rhymes. That sound has driven a lengthy discography of Wu-affiliated albums, not to mention countless imitations. 8 Diagrams is an update to that formula, one of major significance. As a producer, RZA has taken that style and blown it open, filling it with new possibilities.
Critics often use the word “cinematic” to describe the Wu-Tang sound. That word has never been more appropriate than with 8 Diagrams. RZA taps into his Ghost Dog and Kill Bill experiences to create imaginary film music, moody would-be scores to Westerns, martial arts, sci-fi and gangster films. But it’s not just that. There’s a “you are there” quality gained through rough transitions and unexpected juxtapositions. Edits aren’t seamless. Strange sounds come and go, as if RZA’s slapping us occasionally to make sure we’re awake. A casual listener might consider these mistakes, but they actually serve to pull us in. They make you feel like you’re inside the track, like you’re inside a movie.
Album-opener “Campfire” is jarring at first. Film dialogue overlaps with singers and ambient wind sounds to set the scene of a group of warriors gathered around a campfire, telling a tall tale of a ghostly woman. And then sandwiched within are hardcore verses from Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna. Similarly messy at first listen is “Unpredictable”, with squealing guitars and gunshot noises evoking a car chase scene in a cops-and-robbers film. The more you listen, what’s messy becomes seamless; what seemed chaotic sounds immortal. Or as the RZA put it in a recent interview with Tim Westwood, “Sometimes new things is like, you need to taste it once, taste it twice, and on the third time, that’s when it gets nice.”
8 Diagrams is populated with unusual sounds and unexpected styles, carefully arranged by the RZA, often over a melodic base. Some are used subtly, some overtly, but they are all part of the fascinating tapestry of music. “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa” has shimmering chimes and percussion. “Stick Me for My Riches” has interrupting circus music. “Wolves” and “Unpredictable” both have a robotic, sci-fi side to their vocals. “Windmill” loops a cycle of guitars into something to meditate over.
“The Heart Gently Weeps” uses the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (played by John Frusciante and Dhani Harrison) in a way that first seems pedestrian, but isn’t. The song’s progression is taken as a change of mood. It shifts from rock to soul at just the right moment, emotionally. The most ‘pop’ song on the album, “Starter”, has prickly descending guitar notes repeated throughout, which are enticing and slightly unsettling. “Gun Will Go”, which shifts neatly from busy to streamlined, has the oddest single sound. I can’t determine if it’s muted horns, percussion or guitar; it sounds like robotic knives. It appears quickly at first, and then Masta Killa raps a whole verse against it.
Singers’ voices are used as texture throughout the album. George Clinton sings the chorus to “Wolves” in a twisted way. His voice at first seems completely wacked, totally off. But repeated listens bring out the warped logic to it. It resonates with the song’s nursery rhyme mood and the album’s acid-Western aesthetic. During “Stick Me for My Riches”, singer Gerald Alston is first allowed to sing a while before the MCs come in. And then his voice fights for attention with the rappers, their voices overlapping until one chases the other away.
With 10 MCs on the album, counting Cappadonna and Streetlife, the sound of one MC’s voice next to another is a central part of the composition. That’s always true with the Wu-Tang Clan, but here the MCs are less likely to blur together as one voice. That’s due to smart sequencing of MCs who are allowed to display their own individual personalities. Despite the popular misconception, all of the Wu-Tang rappers are growing more masterful on the mic with each passing year. Their own styles have become more pronounced. The original Wu-Tang vision of a collective of individual voices has been fully realized on 8 Diagrams. They work together and alone.
Method Man and Raekwon are used more than anyone else to kick off a track. Each sounds clear and confident, charged and in charge of every word. U-God and Masta Killa have places scattered throughout the album where each shows up and absolutely slays the track, leaving jaws hanging. Inspectah Deck makes use of the gruffness of his voice to do something similar, if less earthshaking. GZA sounds more plainspoken than usual…heartfelt, even.
Ghostface Killah appears on only four of 14 tracks, for three verses and one chorus. That’s about half as often as every other MC in the Clan. But his appearances are dynamite, especially a show-stopping verse in “The Heart Gently Weeps” where he concisely tells a vivid story of a grocery-store fight. Besides being the auteur behind the music, RZA runs through the album like some kind of soothsayer or mystic. His rhymes are consistently bizarre, but also as sharp as any of his fellow MCs.
Quite an array of rapping styles coalesce on this album. Bragging, storytelling, social commentary and rhyming for rhyming’s sake thrive together. 8 Diagrams contains riveting visions of urban strife like “Gun Will Go” and “Stick Me for My Riches”. But there’s also a meditative, spiritual side, courtesy of RZA but also some verses by Masta Killa, GZA and others. “Sunlight” is the centerpiece of that side of the album. Featuring RZA alone, it’s a portrait of Allah that’s philosophical, self-examining, and absolutely bizarre. “When Christ return/who will announce him/every tree is numbered/but who can count them?” is just one of the myriad puzzles and questions packed into the song, which explodes into musical chaos at the end.
The mean streets of today and RZA’s spiritual self-examination tie together as themes throughout 8 Diagrams, which on one level seems an album-length contemplation of struggle, with violence as the backdrop. References to weakness and strength, the hunter and hunted, are prevalent, as they are within the film genres that the album evokes such as Westerns, science fiction, and crime dramas.
8 Diagrams is also a ghost story. It is introduced as such by the opening “Campfire” scene and reinforced by the assortment of unidentifiable, unexpected noises throughout. These are sonic ghosts, perhaps, but the true ghost of 8 Diagrams is ODB, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. This is the first Wu-Tang Clan album since his death, and his presence is in the air. RZA drops a sample of ODB rhyming into the fabric of “Wolves”. Raekwon mentions missing him in “Windmills”. The album’s final track, “Life Changes”, is when the entire group opens up about ODB’s death. The song is filled with direct verses of reminiscence, but there’s also a theme of infinity, of going back and changing the past. It reveals the roots of real-life pain behind the album’s mystical visions of struggle.
RZA gives the final verse on the album, and towards the end of it his voice turns backwards, like he stepped into a Twin Peaks netherworld. From there his voice blends into that of someone speaking in Japanese for a couple minutes, ending the album with a question mark and an exclamation point. So can we stop talking about the Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘decline’ now? 8 Diagrams is as exciting as they’ve ever been.