Wu-Tang Clan's fifth album comes at a time of group strife. Ghostface Killah and Raekwon have laid into ringleader and beatmaker RZA for the album's creative direction; calling Wu a sinking ship and RZA a "hip-hop hippie," Raekwon says the beats on 8 Diagrams are too cerebral.
And yet the group tension has great creative payoff on the album, which succeeds because its members are ornery and not afraid to alienate fans. Though the minimalist production and movie samples evoke Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 8 Diagrams is not exactly bringing da muthafuckin' ruckus. It doesn't kick into high gear until the fourth track, "Rushing Elephants," which has a safari-movie feel. Other highlights include "Unpredictable" and "Take It Back."
Throughout, the usual Wu-Tang samurai and chess metaphors are mixed with pop culture references and bizarre narrative interludes (Ghost raps about getting into a shootout at Pathmark). Almost everyone is in fine form, especially Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and Ghost, although Ghost is notably absent on "Life Changes," the appropriately beautiful and chaotic ODB tribute.
Holding the whole thing together are RZA's beats. Understated, anchored by guitar and piano, and, yes, cerebral, they ensure that 8 Diagrams will age well.