In the beginning, there was RZA and Ghostface.
Back in 1992, the Staten Island roommates recorded "Tearz," cwhich became the first official Wu-Tang Clan song and later appeared as the most overtly emotional cut on the group's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Though the conceptual DNA of the clan had been germinating among RZA and his cousins GZA and Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Tearz" was the moment of crystallization, the year zero for the Wu-Tang Clan. This month finds releases from both founding fathers: Ghostface Killah's third solo record in two years, The Big Doe Rehab, and 8 Diagrams, the first record by the Wu-Tang Clan—as directed by RZA—in six years. Keeping up the momentum, Raekwon's Dr. Dre–helmed Cuban Linx 2 is forthcoming in 2008. Fifteen years after Wu-Tang changed the face of hiphop, a new Wu golden age is underway.
Ghost's Big Doe Rehab marks another chapter in his recent streak of excellence, following last year's Fishscale and More Fish. His skills have elevated to a constant, relaxed greatness and the record displays all his steely intelligence, head-busting vitriol, and screw-faced humor. The problem arises with the beats: With much of the production handled by Puff Daddy's Hitmen consortium (who also manned the bulk of Jay-Z's recent American Gangster), they're soulful and head-nodding but ultimately feel workmanlike and forgettable. The music lacks the bombastic violence Pete Rock and Just Blaze provided to Fishscale or the scuttling weirdness MF Doom and Madlib dropped on More Fish. It's more a strong volume in the Ghostface canon than an arresting event album. It's also better than most anything in contemporary hiphop.
To paraphrase the late Apollo Creed, Ghostface raps great, but Wu-Tang are the greatest rap group of all time. RZA has heralded the new album as a genius piece, an assertion that Wu-Tang is for the whole world and that, again, they are the one true remedy to humanity's cultural and spiritual illness. The record arrived on Earth cometlike, in a swarm of difficulty and confusion. There has been much of the requisite Wu-Tang chaos in the weeks preceding its release: Reported first single "Watch Your Mouth" doesn't even appear on the album; the reported posthumous ODB verse appears only on a live-sounding European-only track; and most dramatically, both Ghostface and Raekwon (a pair that traditionally forms a subset within the Clan) have voiced grievances about the record's content and method of delivery. Ghostface's primary issue—that 8 Diagrams had been pushed back so far that it landed on the same date as Big Doe Rehab's release—appeared to be a beef with the Wu business management and has apparently been remedied by RZA's diplomacy. Raekwon's gripes are more serious.
In a very long public dissent via an online interview with New York gossip maven Miss Info, Rae decried 8 Diagrams as being too musically diffuse; too littered with guitars, singers, and orchestral effects; not hard hitting enough. He seemed resentful of RZA's dictatorial stance in the record's final vibe and hinted that the album's nonadherence to Wu-Tang's sonic roots could seriously damage his reputation. At his most petulant, he called RZA a "hiphop hippie."
Understandably, these are emotionally high-pitched times for the Wu generals, with 8 Diagrams a potential marker of how all of their artistic lives will move into their respective middle ages. While there's truth in Rae's lament over the album not containing another "Triumph" (quite possibly the best rap song ever), his complaints smack of an anxiety that dudes as brilliant and accomplished as the Wu-Tang Clan should be immune to: an aging artist's fear of not being accepted.
For a group whose entire tenure on this planet has been as chaotic as the Clan's, it's only fitting that 8 Diagrams is divisive among the public as well as the members of the Clan themselves. Fortunately, the record is astonishing. RZA's beats strike a balance between his musical past and future, using hypnotic, grimy, one- and two-bar loops on the stampeding "Rushing Elephants" and "Wolves" and more extended song forms on stunning opener "Campfire" and the dopesick Beatles adaptation "The Heart Gently Weeps." The old-kung-fu-movie samples are better integrated than on any previous Wu album (the first song's condemnation that "Money cannot buy you courage" seems a direct attack on modern hiphop's wealth-equals- power ethos) and nearly everyone is in the fiercest lyrical form since Wu-Tang Forever.
The Clan is entering a place unprecedented in hiphop—all around 40 years old, they are making the most vicious and vital work of their careers. As a collective effort, 8 Diagrams offers a vision of hiphop's future nearly as dramatic as Enter the Wu-Tang, a path to artistic longevity that Ghostface and the rest of the crew have yet to achieve individually. That path is one of freedom: freedom from expectations, from the need to imitate old glory. RZA would have you believe that path leads to global domination. At the very least, it's an example of how great artists should age—not with fear for their own future but with fearless vision for the entire world's.