This blurb is not a critical evaluation. This blurb is an emotional response to an album I won’t hear any argument about. Given that I don’t care if you’re convinced, and that I therefore really don’t care about things like angle and blurb structure on this bad-boy, I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story. The smart-ass comments will be in the text, and will not be stylized for easy consumption, because that’s just how I feel about this album. If you’ve come this far, then come a little closer to shore and wade with me, friends and neighbors.
Wu-Tang, who did more for small-town, white-kid hip-hop fandom in the than anyone, including Dre and Snoop introducing the concept of ‘G-Thang’ to the masses, looked poised to descend into objects-of-ridicule status. Over a decade had passed since they had blended Staten Island battle raps with awesomely bastardized Kung-Fu movie philosophy and ended up on posters coast to coast. ODB publicly flew off the handle, and then died. Meth played a bit-part in fucking Zach Braff’s directorial debut. Raekwon and the GZA appeared to be one-and-done after their badass solo-albums garnered them attention amongst the Warped Tour crowd. U-God had beef that was decidedly below everyone’s level of interest. The RZA had produced anything quote worthy other than the ‘serious dewirium, Biww Murray,” and the dorky dicks in Handsome Boy Modeling School were taking pot shots at his empire. Iron Flag and The W hardly made a ripple.
Only Ghostface was making albums that you could find in a Virgin Megastore rack (and I once saw a street-time Escalade promoting Fishscale with Ghost painted on in it, so at the very least, somebody put some money into promoting his efforts). However, even if Marty told y’all that you that he was doing for hip-hop language and structure what Dylan did for folk, your friends may have heard the Neyo track at the health club, said it was pretty cool, and moved on. The album didn’t sell. Pitchfork labeled him the winner of the Wu-Tang relevance battle of attrition, which is a high-faluting way of saying that Wu-Tang had jumped the shark. And then there was the preview of the GZA-filmed documentary, which hinted that if you watched the full 90 minutes when it came out, you’d be pretty sure that the Wu were all sociopaths who just wanted attention.
So when the hype machine started up for 8 Diagrams, I was already rooting for the comeback story. The timing seemed right, you know? Only trouble was, these things don’t often work out like I hope. No matter how much I try to get fired up about a former flame’s new work, a few listens and a few ‘this ain’t bad’s later and I’m done. I’m projecting, perhaps, and also a little cynical, but the comeback album doesn’t usually add to the legacy; rather, it sells out stadiums to people who just want a little more ‘Born to Run’ before they have to go back to work.
So then, here we have 8 Diagrams, and it fucking rocks – against the odds, against the backdrop of impending permanent mediocrity, against the great expectations of Forever’s million-dollar-budget videos, against the current hipster sense of musical consumption-and-disposal-and-look-it’s-PBR-in-cans at-a-bar neat! It’s music that makes people uncomfortable and still ensnares listeners. The productions feels like it’s part Wu-Tang battle beats, part Wu-Tang mafia-opera strings and synth, part comfortable East-coast lyricists lounge digestive, and part bat-shit crazy tinkering. Go and read all those parts again and see if you can reconcile them. Then add guest spots by George Clinton riffing on Red Riding Hood and Erykah Badu compromising the Beatles with child-like empress tones with John Frusciante ‘refreshing’ Clapton’s guitar (and I’d love to talk to you at great length about why in God’s name Wu-Tang decided to rework a Beatles’ song about hurt and the artist’s helpless responsibility to address it. The Wu got the hurt part, but their take on artistic and social responsibility is… well, a bit mixed. Seriously, let’s you and me talk). Oh yeah, and then add the work of a suddenly refreshed group of generation-defining MCs who were in the right place at the right time to deliver like a bad NBA nickname (like Karl Malone and shit).
But these are all features on a product – back to that listener-ensnaring. What you need to go out RIGHT NOW and get excited about is how good it feels to process your love for this album (do it). You want to bob your head and break your neck like Busta Rhymes couldn’t possibly compel you to do. You said you didn’t care if the neighbors were offended – now you want to play this on your porch so you can see just how much you meant it. Despite their elder statesmen status, Wu-Tang does not make this one free of some juvenile nastiness that the old folks and PC won’t ever embrace. And yet, they don’t seem to bring uncomfortable just for the sake of making you wince anymore. The kind folks at P-Spork will tell you every four reviews or so that the Beach Boys were all fun fun fun until things got complicated but couldn’t lose those fun fun fun pop sensibilities, and thus all indie-pop bands must try to comply. Conversely, Wu-Tang used to spew outrageous battle rap claims because the people wanted it; now things aren’t as simple as trying to get rich through working a crowd. They got rich, the public turned on them, the RZA got some peculiar ideas about religion, the ODB kicked the bucket, and they found themselves catering primarily to white kids. They have to be aware of all of this. And yet, you can’t take the battle verse groove out of the bizarre narratives and the outrageous binary intellectual / nuttin to fugg wit binary claims. After all, they’re eight-plus dudes in their late thirties making up stories of pimp-dom and sexual conquest, and they make it work. IT WORKS! WU TANG IS BACK! BIG WU TANG IS UNPREDICTABLE!
Of course, after the album came out, Ghostface threw the RZA under the bus, key members stopped showing up on tour, and they apparently went back to playing the same set they’ve been playing live since 1999. So maybe not so unpredictable. So be grateful they came together like they did, play this one loud. If the stars align, I could be selling you another comeback story in 2013.
Thank you very much. This concludes the address. Punch and pie in the lobby, biotch.
-Josh Woodbeck, 2008