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Sword On Sword

In The Face of a Fantastic New Album, Wu-Tang Clan Revolts Against Its Mastermind

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 1/9/2008

Seasoned kung fu warriors know that surprise attacks--ones meant not to kill, but rather to test one's mettle and make sure one comes correct--can come at any time from family, comrades, and members of the temple. So Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA couldn't have been completely shocked when Wu generals Ghostface Killah and Raekwon began throwing blows at him during interviews leading up to the December release of the Clan's fifth album, 8 Diagrams (Motown/Universal)--its first full-length in six years, and first since the 2004 death of Ol' Dirty Bastard reduced the lineup to eight.

Still, RZA must've been stung by the pair's particularly vicious assaults on his production style, which over the years has evolved from sleek and starkly martial to something far more esoteric, experimental, and emotionally multifaceted; 8 Diagrams is easily his most ambitious creation to date. Ghost's take? "I feel that the new Wu-Tang album is bullshit," he bluntly told MTV.

Concurrently, in a videotaped hotel-room interview with New York radio personality Miss Info that was widely disseminated online, Rae echoed those sentiments even more irascibly, intimating that they were shared by everyone in the Clan not named RZA: "RZA's tryin' to create too much of an orchestra, piano . . . this is not the vibe I want, this is the vibe he wants--he's like a hip-hop hippie right now . . . we make punch-you-in-the-face music." Taking it further, he made clear his issues extended past the aesthetic to the dolla dolla bills, y'all, accusing RZA of "playin' with a grown man's pockets."

The characteristically diplomatic RZA has neither turned the other cheek nor broken any chins. "Everything is back peace already," he claimed to BBC Radio in November while responding to the fracas. Vigorously denying any financial improprieties, he acknowledged the creative differences but insisted, "Yo, you gotta accept the new. Sometimes new things is, like, you need to taste it once, taste it twice, and on the third time that's when they get nice."

Tension and infighting within the Clan is nothing new--Ghost and Rae were once avowed enemies--but rarely has it been so nasty or so public. In the early days, nearly two decades ago, dissent was easily quashed: RZA ruled the Wu-Tang Clan like a dictator with his now-storied "Five-Year Plan"; the rest of the group submitted to his will, and their acquiescence was rewarded with two artistic and commercial successes--the groundbreaking 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and 1997's fanatically received double album, Wu-Tang Forever.

Soon, though, their collective strength waned as all the core members--RZA, GZA, Ghost, Method Man, Rae, ODB, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa--launched off planet Wu in search of solo stardom, some achieving more acclaim (and bank) than others. By the time they re-formed for 2000's The W and 2001's Iron Flag, the rise of individual stature necessitated a change in the group's power structure, from dictatorship to democracy; coincidentally or not, that resulted in two albums that were only sporadically brilliant.

Meanwhile, in the six years since that last Wu disc dropped, Ghost's star has shined particularly brightly, with 2000's tremendous Supreme Clientele laying the groundwork for 2006's even better Fishscale and his brand-new The Big Doe Rehab. Clearly emboldened by the fact that he doesn't need the Clan at the moment in order to move units, Ghost attacked RZA and 8 Diagrams--named after the 1983 martial-arts flick Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter, which quite fittingly counts brotherhood and betrayal as its primary themes--with vigor. Rae might not have the same cachet, but he's got Ghost's back, seeing as how their Wu subset is nearly as tight as the one formed by RZA and his cousin/mentor GZA. As for RZA, rebellion is tolerated, but in the end he still got his way, putting out the album with few, if any, concessions--indeed, power and control are rarely ceded easily.

The Ghost/Rae vs. RZA schism certainly speaks to larger issues. The former faction represents a sizable segment of Wu-nation that wants to re-enter the 36 chambers; the latter would like to hear the Clan come with something new, yet just as compelling. It's the ages-old quandary faced by veteran groups, especially those seeking a comeback: Revert to the tried and true, or leap forward into uncharted territory? The pitfalls for both are obvious--attempts to recapture old glories rarely succeed, and it reeks of desperation and creative surrender; resolutely turning one's back on the past often means ignoring essential strengths, which typically results in subpar material and an alienated fan base. Of course, there is a third way--reaching back for some of the elements that worked and bringing them along on fresh explorations, the best of both worlds.

And that's precisely what the excellent, beautifully baffling, completely engaging 8 Diagrams is, rendering all the sniping quite absurd. The eerie, sinister grit and swagger of early Wu gets pushed into new, atmospheric realms in "Take It Back," where RZA welds keyboard murmurs to skeletal beats and scratches, approximating a midnight scurry through a shadowy, steam-belching urban nightmarescape; and the hard-hitting "Unpredictable," which plants unsettling guitar squeals and wahs atop the kind of propulsive industrial throb Ministry might have laid down on The Land of Rape and Honey. Accompanied by melancholy string saws and his own rudimentary, moody guitar picking, RZA's snares snap forbiddingly in the gaunt "Gun Will Go"; they're equally crisp in the swingin' "Wolves," maybe the disc's best track, where they're strangely and effectively surrounded by the evocative whistles, mariachi horns, and sunbaked guitar twang of an Ennio Morricone-scored spaghetti western, as well as the oddball, grandma-eating rasp-musings of guest vocalist George Clinton.

And for all their bitching, Ghost and Rae deliver the goods as sharply as ever, and sound perfectly happy to dwell inside RZA's productions. Ghost makes the most of his verse in the neo-soul "The Heart Gently Weeps"--a reinterpretation of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" featuring Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante and George Harrison's son Dhani on guitar, along with Erykah Badu's coos in the chorus--as he rhymes and even falsetto-sings a memorable tale of being ambushed by a gun-toting, revenge-minded adversary in a supermarket aisle: "Shots was whizzing, hitting Clorox bottles . . . I had to show him what it's all about/ Next thing you read in the paper/ `A man who came to kill gets knocked out.'"

GZA's smooth, wisdom-packed couplets are also a marvel. And he's the only member of the Clan who can get away with dissing RZA on wax: "We criticize producers till they joints are right," he slides into "Rushing Elephants" (reminiscent of his unforgettable verse in "As High as Wu-Tang Get": "You can't flow, must be the speech impediment/ You got lost off the snare off `Impeach the President'"). But the real star here might be the rejuvenated-sounding Method Man, who digs into each of his gruff, inspired rhymes like his life and reputation depends on it. "Still got a wicked flow/ And I'm like Barry Bonds on anything that RZA throw," he brags on opener "Campfire"; indeed, it sounds like he might have taken something to reverse several years of mic decline as he approaches his 40s.

And the posse cuts--long one of the Wu's most singular virtues, spotlighting and emphasizing each rapper's unique flow--are in effect here, too; none touches such classics as "Triumph" or "Protect Ya Neck," but "Life Changes" comes close. A tribute to ODB that features everyone in the Clan but Ghost, whom RZA mysteriously excluded from the track (yep, more beef), it's easily the disc's emotional apex, each verse a member's opportunity to deliver a brief, heartfelt eulogy. (GZA's lines are particularly moving: "I cried like a baby on the way to his place of death/ Hate not being there the minutes before he left/ Now I'm in the booth 10 feet from where he lay dead/ I think about him on this song and what he might have said.")

It's entirely possible that Ghost and Rae lobbed their broadsides at RZA as a pre-emptive strike in case 8 Diagrams was poorly received, maybe to preserve their own commercial footholds. But so far the opposite's held true--critics galore and many fans, too, are ranking the disc as one of the Clan's best--and perhaps the duo's feeling a bit sheepish at the moment. Or perhaps not--in that interview with Miss Info, Rae suggested the whole Clan, minus RZA, might make their own album in response to RZA's "ball fumbling." He says they've even got a title for the disc: Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Meanwhile, RZA's been conspicuously absent on the group's current tour so far, during which the group has been performing zero tracks from 8 Diagrams. Will there be a reconciliation, or is a Wu-mutiny at hand? Either way, the saga continues.

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