RZA, on the other hand, is single-mindedly attempting to take his production—and, one assumes, hip-hop itself—in new directions. He opted for a solo tour instead of joining Wu in concert this time around, and a recent performance in San Francisco illuminated his musical state of mind to the extent that he performed a rock- and funk-heavy set with a full backing band. Many in the audience were reportedly stunned, and some left early. But no one who has followed RZA’s career should be surprised that he’s expanding his scope. In 1999, he scored and starred in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and, a few years after Wu’s last (and poorly received) 2001 album, Iron Flag (Columbia), he composed music for Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. To expect him to reproduce the raw, nihilistic sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud) is ridiculous. There’s just no way an artist with RZA’s visionary instincts is going to run in place.
The opening film dialogue on 8 Diagrams quickly indicates that the album has few similarities to other Wu-Tang projects. Taken from the 1983 Hong Kong martial-arts movie Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (from which the CD gets its name), the clip eschews the typical tough-guy bravado that these snippets have provided for Wu-Tang in the past. “Kindness and faith are the foundation,” says the speaker, adding: “Never lose control of yourself. Be patient.” At the end of “Campfire,” another voice states: “Money can’t buy courage. Riches mean nothing to us,” to which the initial voice responds, “Brilliant, a display of genius.” Those sure sound like preemptive rebukes to Ghostface and Raekwon’s complaints.
The album then proceeds on its wandering, mystical path, lacking a banger along the lines of “Bring Da Ruckus” or “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ Ta F’ Wit.” For the most part, it works, but sometimes RZA’s sound collages fall apart. “Unpredictable” features a squealing electric guitar that sounds like something left over from a Whitesnake session, while RZA chants “We, Wu-Tang is unpredictable” over and over. “Sunlight” is little more than quasi-spiritual spoken word mumbo jumbo over a molasses-slow beat: “On Christ’s return, who will announce him?” RZA asks. “Every tree is numbered, but who can count them?”
But, by and large, the songs that take melodic chances have great payoffs. “Stick Me for My Riches” begins with an extended verse beautifully sung by Gerald Alston, former lead singer for the Manhattans. Crooner Sunny Valentine is wisely recruited for two hooks, and Erykah Badu delivers a haunting chorus on “The Heart Gently Weeps,” which also features George Harrison’s son Dhani on rhythm guitar. (George Clinton also offers his gnarled vocals on a pair of tracks, but the less said about those the better.)
Despite these (usually) elegant frills, the Wu members themselves deliver the album’s most memorable moments. Inspectah Deck nearly salvages “Unpredictable” with his gritty verse. He also delivers the CD’s most impassioned moment when he asks for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s forgiveness from beyond the grave on “Life Changes,” a tribute to the founding group member, who died in 2004. A rejuvenated Method Man is in top form throughout, particularly on his nearly perfect 24 bars on “Campfire,” the album’s lead track.