Six years on and one Dirty Bastard down and the Clan are back. 8 Diagrams, Wu-Tang Clan's 5th studio album was long in the making and comes with the expected dose of controversy and talking points you'd imagine from this group. Leading up to the release of 8 Diagrams Raekwon stirred things up with a much publicised interview where he openly critisised producer RZA for the direction he was taking the group and accused him of being a "hip-hop hippie." Then like a bunch of bickering little girls Ghostface Killah weighed in protesting the timing of the record which was due to be released at the same time as his own The Big Doe Rehab. It's clear from the first listen of this record that Raekwon and Ghostface Killah don't know shit. RZA might have taken the Wu sound in a more subtle direction but in doing so he's created one of the hip-hop albums of the year.
Since their first release Enter The Wu (36 Chambers) way back in 1993, The Wu Tang Clan quickly established their own unique sound and all the many solo projects that followed have only served to elaborate on this. RZA, with his fingers in many pies would never have been content to continue this progression so despite the twittering of a few back-benchers he's rejected the hard-hitting beats of old and painstakingly crafted a record dripping in mood. It's a dark, reflective and densely produced piece of work that uses strings, guitar, live instrumentation and more soul vocals than ever before. It has no clear single and will alienate many die hard Wu fans but RZA's new, introvert style of sound provides richer pastures for his band of merry MC's.
Campfire kicks things off with a beat that oozes through your speakers like molasses, while Get Them Out The Way Pa is smoother than any Wu sound you've heard. This easing off the heavy beat pedal doesn't soften the impact that this group have been keen to cultivate but lets it sink in slower and more profoundly than before. The thick, plodding beats and rich instrumentation shifts the emphasis away from violence to menace and fear. So when the big guns do come out they are sharper than ever. Rushing Elephants and Unpredictable are the proud figureheads of this record and inject a sense of urgency with their apocalyptic beats and epic heist-movie horns. The production goes from minimal to claustrophobically complex and the MC's raise the tempo with furious spitting. Unfortunately this tempo is not maintained and throughout the middle section you start to think that maybe RZA's critics had a point. The beats start to go from brooding to just plain soft and the focus on melody and singing comes dangerously close to diluting the Wu ethos. Gun Will Go embodies this perfectly - it counts itself in with a rhythm that promises greatness then is smoothed over with soft melody and the`tantalisingly old school snare simply fades away.
Thankfully, RZA is anything but self indulgent and always has a plan. He cleverly manages to steer his crew out of this slow patch and they emerge triumphant, in fact he starts by going solo over a slow jazz background in Sunshine then continues to bring this album back to the dark side with steady cuts like Weak Spot and and Tar Pit. The late O.D.B's presence is definitely felt on this record with the tribute song Life Changes and the closing track 16th Chamber.
8 Diagrams is certainly not what you'd expect from a group such as this after a 6 year absence but who needs another thugged-out beat-fest? These guys created this genre so who better to lead us out of it into a new dawn? Thankfully this is no sunrise and the gloom still hangs heavy over Clan territory. 8 Diagrams might not be as head on as albums like 36 Chambers, but it's weight will eventually seep through and it will, in time, emerge as one of the hip-hop albums of 2007.