The early word on Wu-Tang Clan’s new 8 Diagrams (Motown) is that it will rip the group apart at the seams. In the month or so before the album came out on December 11, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah—arguably the group’s most respected emcees—tossed a series of verbal hand grenades at RZA, the group’s primary beat-maker and de-facto leader. Raekwon said the album’s slower grooves and production (which relies heavily on live instrumentation) just isn’t what fans want from the Staten Island crew. “We make ‘punch you in the face’ music,” he insisted in one interview, also calling RZA a “hip-hop hippie” and suggesting that the group may reform without him.
Ghostface’s issues are more complex. He is similarly nonplussed about the album’s creative direction but has focused his aggression more on group financial dealings and the fact that 8 Diagrams was initially slated for release on December 4, the same day as his seventh solo album, The Big Doe Rehab (Def Jam). RZA eventually relented, moving the Wu disc back a week, but the damage had been done. Ghostface shows up on only four of 8 Diagrams’ 14 tracks—strange considering he’s the most commercially viable artist in the group right now.
Ghostface’s creative differences with RZA are starkly revealed in contrasting the two albums. The creative gulf between the two has widened in recent years. Ghost’s 2006 critically heralded Fishscale (Def Jam) was the first of his solo albums that didn’t feature any RZA productions. In terms of lyrics, Ghost remains interested in perfecting cinematic gangster stories, and The Big Doe Rehab has as many of these bizarre, brutal, drug-tales-gone-awry mini-movies as Fishscale.
Meanwhile, Ghost’s emcee skills are in top form. His meters are complex, his rhymes hilarious, his delivery enchanting (even occasionally vulnerable), and his narratives are as compelling as a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. “I’m playin’ with her pussy on the couch, I’m ready to fuck,” he raps on “Yolanda’s House.” “Like come here Miss Lady Wop, where you put the condom box?/She finished off the last one, ‘Oh shit I hear the cops!’/Handcuffs and talkies, I mashed her white Yorkie/Jettin’ up the stairs, them pigs want revenge like Porky’s.”
Ghost is clearly better served by abandoning Wu’s chess-and-samurai stories in favor of these often humorous street adventures, but he could use RZA’s ear. The beats on The Big Doe Rehab don’t often complement Ghost’s furious lyrics. Five tracks come courtesy of Diddy-affiliates LV & Sean C, who push their soul samples further into the background than they did on Jay-Z’s American Gangster. (They smartly employ a classic-rock riff on “Toney Sigel a.k.a. The Barrel Brothers,” the album’s most rousing track.) On the two songs Ghost co-produces, he turns the soulfulness up a few notches more. It’s not surprising that a self-professed lover of R&B from his parents’ generation is looking backward, but it’s sometimes dull.