'From the outside, life in the Wu-Tang Clan whooshes by like a flurry of fists...'
From the outside, life in the Wu-Tang Clan whooshes by like a flurry of fists, a barrage of solo albums, TV cameos, film roles, video games, mixtapes and clothing lines. So much so that even the death of founder member Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the spittle-chucking mad monk and father to 13 children who died in 2004, seemed to bring the crew closer together; one solider falls and, almost imperceptibly, the Clan close ranks to fill his place.
It’s a slightly startling realisation, then, that ‘8 Diagrams’ is the Staten Island rap crew’s first album proper since 2001’s patchy ‘Iron Flag’. In a sense, this is perhaps understandable: the Wu have spent the bulk of their career trying – and failing – to top their dense, fascinating 1993 debut ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, not to mention the flurry of largely excellent solo records that followed in its wake. ‘8 Diagrams’ is no mysterious cut-throat epic like ‘36 Chambers’, but then nor does it try to be. Rather, the Wu in 2008 roll with a good-time spirit, dropping tracks that toy with horn-fuelled soul and Eastern-tinged funk, to deploy a brace of special guests with some endearingly nutty logic and mounting the occasional audacious samurai-raid on some unexpected pop cultural landmark: see ‘The Heart Gently Weeps’, a surreal remake of The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, with George Harrison’s son Dhani and Chili Pepper John Fruscianti on guitar.
A sell-out, then? Well, not really. Sure, there’s rather a lot of singing, and nowadays you’re more likely to find them rhyming about Grand Theft Auto or Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings (‘Rushing Elephants’) than Zen-fulled katana massacres. But Method Man and Ghostface Killah are on searing lyrical form and, while they could never totally replace Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the presence of funk hero George Clinton goes some way to filling the nutjob quotient. “Somebody let the monkeys out the cage!” he rants on ‘Tar Pit’, wheezing like he’s just taken a hit off the world’s biggest bong (and he just might have). A track that’s followed by ‘16th Chamber ODB Special’ – a rough cut of Ol’ Dirty dusted down from the vaults,just because.
Yeah, that’s ‘8 Diagrams’ – a knockabout set rather than a knife to the jugular. But you know what? It’s a bit of a treat to hear how the world’s greatest rap group sound now they’ve pulled the samurai sword out of their arse.