In one of the more amusing interludes of the famously fraught life of the late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, he hijacked Shawn Colvin's Grammy acceptance speech to proclaim that "Wu is for the kids."
"8 Diagrams," the much-anticipated comeback album released today from the Staten Island hip-hop collective, could've used more of its fallen comrade's endearing bizarreness. As it is, this solid but rarely stunning version of Wu-Tang Clan will likely please but not blow away those who were kids when "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" dropped back in 1993.
ODB's oddball energy is missed, but certainly a shortage of voices is not a problem. In addition to the eight remaining brothers in rhyme - RZA, GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa - adjunct member Cappadonna and nine special guests, including George Clinton and Erykah Badu, appear on "Diagrams."
It's impressive that the original members, all of whom now have successful solo careers, managed to regroup, but only a few have something interesting to say or impart a sense of urgency.
Perhaps recent press reports of intra-group grumbling account for the mailing-it-in feeling that pervades some of the mean-streets rhymes on tracks like "Get Them Out Ya Way PA" and "Unpredictable" - on which Deck promises to "keep it fresh like Tupperware." The only one who is consistently crisp, however, is Method Man who, on "Stick Me for My Riches," in particular, packs heat into his menacing growl.
Ultimately, the Wu's main architect was and remains production guru RZA. Some of the recent complaints have concerned the expansion of his sonic palette beyond his typically austere approach of layering beats, keys, and kung-fu movie samples. But his quirky additions make "Diagrams" more compelling than it might seem from just a glance at the lyric sheet.
What "Unpredictable" lacks in verbal fire it makes up for in its striking instrumentation, including siren-like electric guitar that stabs ferociously through a psychedelicized, hard-edged groove. The up-tempo, off-kilter "Wolves" features a woozy rasp of a hook from Clinton and a snatch of mariachi horns.
"The Heart Gently Weeps," the album's most discussed track, is a symphony of weird. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante drips acid-damaged licks over a dribbling keyboard approximating the melody of the Beatles's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And Badu sings the gauzy hook as if she's just awakened from a nap.
"Life Changes" ends "Diagrams" on a poignant, unified note as each man - save, conspicuously, Ghostface - offers up a eulogy to ODB. If as much heart and group energy went into the rest of the tracks, "Diagrams" might have been the electrifying re-entrance of the Wu-Tang Clan that fans were hoping for instead of just the minor miracle it is.