The Ghost of Christmas Past

History haunts the Wu and Pretty Toney this holiday season.

Wu-Tang Clan Ghostface hip-hop
Wu, party of nine. Your table is ready.
Wu, party of nine. Your table is ready.

Christmas comedown is supposed to happen after the holidays. But for Wu-Tang Clan fans, the within-a-week releases of Ghostface's sixth solo album (The Big Doe Rehab) and the first Wu outing since the death of Ol' Dirty Bastard (The 8 Diagrams) threaten to be a double disappointment this season.

After all, Ghostface has been a paragon of inconsistency throughout his career, and he's coming off last year's universally lauded Fishscale and its quickie sequel, More Fish — meaning he's due for a clunker. And despite the number of rappers and producers who've made a living ripping off the Wu, there's understandable concern about whether the group can offer anything to fans who might not even have been born when the murky, twilight soundscapes of 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers revolutionized hip-hop.

Unfortunately, Ghost provides some ammo for the naysayers. In spots, Big Doe Rehab can be just as frustrating as you'd expect in the wake of Fishscale's sustained brilliance. Ghost has done this before: He followed up 2000's classic Supreme Clientele with the far more commercially oriented Bulletproof Wallets. There's no denying that MF Doom's inventive beats were a major part of Fishscale's success; P. Diddy's pals Sean C. and LV produced five tracks on Big Doe Rehab. This certainly invites charges of playing to the masses.

The more pertinent criticism, however, is that Ghost tends to rhyme to the level of his tracks, and on several cuts, he simply sounds bored. Contrast Sean C. and LV's tunes with the moments where his whine reaches the expected heights of off-the-wall weirdness — "Supa GFK" or the intricate, indescribable (and inscrutable) "White Linen Affair (Toney Awards)" — and you can only imagine what might have been. Half-strength Ghost is certainly preferable to the nondescript crunk chants now dominating the charts. But it's yet another baffling case of a brilliant MC refusing to surround himself with the daring music he deserves.

Likewise, The 8 Diagrams' initial batch of reviews focuses on similar complaints about not-up-to-par production (supplied here by Wu mastermind the RZA). The typical critique is that the disc is far too mellow to live up to the group's grimy legacy. Those ready to write off the group, however, should think twice — and listen a few more times.

When the Wu reassembled at a tiny Connecticut club gig last year, the results were every bit as chaotic as you'd assume. The ridiculously crowded stage — where things were nearly as elbow-to-elbow as the audience — made clear the group's lifelong problem of trying to accommodate the needs of nine or ten distinct characters. Plus, there were moments when no one seemed to have a clue what was supposed to happen next.

But for all the confusion, one fact was clear by night's end: This was a group that still mattered. Partly because the Wu has managed to survive hip-hop's dog-eat-MC mentality. But there were other reminders too. Method Man emerged positively electric from a longtime ganja cloud. After years of making bad films and even worse solo projects, it seemed he rediscovered his hunger from the old Staten Island days.

Perhaps the best thing about The 8 Diagrams is that Meth re-establishes himself as the Wu's point man. The RZA remains the group's leader, but just listen to Meth's show-stealing verses in "Gun Will Go" and "Get 'Em Out Ya Way Pa." And take note of the way he invigorates "The Heart Gently Weeps" — which most likely, with its Beatles interpolation and heavenly Erykah Badu hook, would drift off into the ether otherwise. Another bonus is the chance to rediscover the perpetually underrated Raekwon. Much of Wu's classic vibe stems from the Chef's cinematic couplets, which launch "The Heart Gently Weeps" and several other tracks here with impressionistic élan.

The strength of Rae and Meth's verses makes up for the lack of Ghost, who vanishes about halfway through the disc (and has made clear in recent interviews that he's pissed about his own album getting competition from the Wu). His absence is most keenly felt on "Life Changes," the inevitable seven-minute-plus tribute to Ol' Dirty. It's also a reminder that, while both ODB and Ghost have played a crucial role in separating the Wu from other purveyors of late-night drug-running tales, both always functioned best in a supporting role — at least in the Wu universe.

Is The 8 Diagrams too laid-back to click with today's fickle younger fans? Maybe. But the focus placed on the Wu's abilities as a rhyming unit might not be such a bad thing. The reason there are so few rappers of the Clan's vintage still around is that so few were ever real storytellers. The spectral urban landscapes sketched atop these subtle backdrops show that the group hasn't abandoned this gift. It makes for a flawed but haunting disc — a diagram worth studying and following.

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