Thursday, December 06, 2007

Freak-A-Leak Week: Wu Tang Clan's "8 Diagrams"

Some might be inclined to call Wu-Tang Clan's new album "8 Diagrams" incomplete because one of its most popular members, ODB, died four years ago. In a group of 10 rappers (counting Capadonna), the guy they called Dirt McGirt didn't carve a niche so much as he ice picked a gaping wound within the group dynamic.

"8 Diagrams" includes not one, but two ODB tribute tracks, the somber, heartfelt "Life Changes" and the gritty throwback "16th Chamber ODB Special."

The former is anchored by an eerie, charging soul sample and piano chords that give the MC's room to reflect on the moment they found out about ODB's death. Most poignant is GZA's verse “now Im in the booth 10 feet from where he lay dead/ I think about him on this song and what he might have said.” With each passing eulogy, the mood shifts, until RZA's verse. As the piano fades out, the bass thump increases and RZA, who was ODB's cousin, lowers his baritone to six feet below, detailing ODB's struggles and triumphs in a mournful verse.

The latter sounds like an outtake from the Clan's salad days, with a Method Man verse later used on "Release Yo' Delf" and ODB sounding young and hungry, before he had full command of his style.

It's the melding of past and present that is evident throughout "8 Diagrams, whether it's the lurching, chain-gang rumble of the opening track "Campfire" or the lyrical urgency on tracks like "Rushing Elephants" and "Gun Will Go."

On each track, there is some register of the classic Wu-Tang Style, be it near undecipherable rhyme schemes, bare-bones production courtesy of RZA, or the classic Kung-Fu movie samples.

At the same time, "8 Diagrams" is a full update of the Wu-Tang profile. The tracks carry a more polished, melodic weight, with subtle note changes and progressions that weren't as prominent on previous Wu-Tang efforts, RZA-produced or otherwise. Even the kung-fu samples are more pronounced, if not a little more obscure, than on previous releases.

While there are no definite singles, one standout track is "The Heart Gently Weeps" featuring Erykah Badu, John Fursciante and Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison. An update of Beatles song "As My Guitar Gently Weeps." RZA has been boasting it is the first time the Beatles authorized a sample of their music, thanks in part to Dhani Harrison.

The song, a patented Wu-Tang street narrative with tribal story tellers Raekwon and Ghostface leading the way, is all spooky guitar squeals and minor keys, centered around a fluctuating Badu vocal. If there were such a thing as hip-hop folk music, this might be a point of reference.

Throughout "8 Diagrams," the clan carries this mournful vibe to artistic heights. Perhaps the death of ODB has taken the past four years to digest, and even now that vacuum remains. As the Wu-Tang trudges on, minus one of its key foot soldiers, the other Clan members have crafted a solid, complete effort in honor of theor fallen brethren.

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