Even before its release, the Wu-Tang Clan's ostensible comeback album, 8 Diagrams, drew heated criticism from hip-hop luminaries. In the beef-filled world of rap, that isn't unusual; what is unusual is the source of that criticism: standout Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, both of whom have criticized the group's new musical direction, the latter even calling RZA a "hip-hop hippie" in an interview.
The pair's criticism initially seems misguided. "Campfire" and "Rushing Elephants" swagger with the adrenaline rush of vintage Wu-Tang Clan while "Wolves" playfully experiments with the group's well-worn aesthetic via a freaky-funky-greasy George Clinton chorus and spaghetti western atmospherics. "The Heart Gently Weeps" is a less successful attempt at broadening the group's sound. It's a sleepy take on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that gets an A for effort and ambition but a C for execution. As on Ghostface's consistently transcendent solo albums, whenever he and Raekwon join forces they time-travel back to Wu's 36 Chambers heyday. In a similar vein, every time he raps alongside his Wu brethren, Method Man makes a remarkable transition from grumpy, mild-mannered has-been to charismatic super-MC.
After "Wolves," though, the album meanders in search of direction, and Ghostface, now the group's MVP, goes missing. "Starter" revolves around a drunken, woozily infectious horn sample, and the version of Diagrams available at Best Buy and in Europe ends with a poignant trip back to the beginning with "16th Chamber (ODB Special)" an exhilaratingly raw Ol' Dirty Bastard track that highlights how far the group has come but also how much it misses the loopy iconoclast who functioned as its heart and soul. Despite considerable strengths, the uneven but sometimes exhilarating 8 Diagrams nevertheless suggests that it might have made sense for one of rap's all-time greatest groups to bow out gracefully following the death of ODB.