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First Listen: Wu-Tang’s ‘8 Diagrams’

The Staten Island collective make their disjointed return with more kung fu dedications and viciously funny rhymes.

Much controversy has circulated on Wu-Tang’s forthcoming album 8 Diagrams, the group’s first set since 2001’s Iron Flag; from losing their indefatigable spirit ODB, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, in 2004 to the recent licensing deal for the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to rescheduling the record’s original release date to accommodate Ghostface Killah’s forthcoming LP, 8 Diagramshas been somewhat of a feat. De facto frontman RZA has also earned thewrath of both Raekwon and Ghostface for his alleged micromanaging andrecent guitar-playing trysts.

Produced by RZA, the 14-track 8 Diagrams– out Dec. 11 via SRC/Universal — harbors the usual martialarts-inspired themes like on “Weak Spot” and “Rushing Elephants.” Stillprocuring mostly antique beats and drab sounds, Diagrams is as much a revival as it is a throwback. Check out our notes from last Friday’s listening session. RODNEY DUGUE

1. “Campfire” — Sampling Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman,” 8 Diagramsbegins with an old kung-fu master preaching about kindness and justice,evidence of their long standing fixation with martial arts. MethodMan’s voice emerges rapping: “cruising on the interstate follow mewhile I innovate.” He later adds: “I don’t eat berries” except Halle[Berry]. Impossibly accurate it would seem.

2. “Take It Back”– “Before you had a name / You were screaming Wu-Tang” is a greatindication of what Wu-Tang means to Wu-Tang as a united group despitethe recent divisiveness. Co-produced by Easy Mo Bee, the dusty sparsechills are pure nostalgia. The title doesn’t disappoint, appropriatelytaking it back to antiquity.

3. “Get Them Out Ya Way Pa”– Ghostface provides the chorus, “If he drunk and he runs his mouththen we stomping him out” and then the refrain (“Get them out Ya Pa”).The tough guy ethos feels a bit out of place, but fits well with thegrungy brassy beat.

4. “Rushing Elephants” — GZA talksabout his “big booty cousin nasty Nadine” — and then double-teamingher. Incest notwithstanding, it’s a great track.

5. “Unpredictable” ft. Dexter Wiggle– Inspectah Deck and Raekwon split the lyrical duties manhandling thisspooky off-key instrumental. Lines like “we keep it fresh liketuberware” only rival “bitches ride like the scream machine.” Completechaos reigns on one of the best tracks on album.

6. “The Heart Gently Weeps” ft. Erykah Badu, Dhani Harrison, and John Frusciante– Falsely billed as the first successful Beatles-sampling record ofmodern day, Ghostface makes most of the hype. Ghostface talks abouttaking his “bitch to Pathmark” then lamenting about getting his shoesdirty before realizing he’s out of bullets. The sort of inscrutableoddball genius Ghost is famous for.

7. “Wolves” ft. George Clinton — George Clinton paints some weird yet effective imagery of running in the forest a la Little Red Riding Hood.With a distinct western whistle in the background, U- God cements thesong with his running verse and pertinent drink choice — “the applemartini of course is stirred.” Our early favorite.

8. “Gun Will Go” ft. Sunny Valentine– Over these really articulate strings, Atlanta-based rapper SunnyValentine sings an irresistibly charming hook about gun violence,remarkably. Raekwon spits an immeasurably deft verse, cautioning:”Y’all n**** be making shapes / Ours is art / Yours is trace.”

9. “Sunlight”– Executive producer RZA makes one of two rapping cameos, performing apaean to Allah on a stormy, indiscreet track. “Allah is the mostgracious / He made the earth so spacious,” he raps stoically.

10. “Stick Me for my Riches” ft. Gerald Alston– The appropriate backlash for the rags-to-riches stories thatdominates hip-hop these days. The hollow chute pistons ingratiate thetrack really well in spite of the tried theme.

11. “Starter” ft. Sunny Valentine and Tash Mahogany– A nasty sports/porn allegory persists where the female in questionis the “number one draft pick.” Don’t forget about the “humanhighlight,” either. A really wet misogynistic track, naturally.

12. “Windmill”– There’s no formal chorus on here, just a disorganized lyricalexercise built on a guitar trapeze. “Nobody can’t fuck with me I’m toonice / Smack a kid / On his head every time I’m right” stands the testof memory.

13. “Weak Spot” — Inspired by a kung-futheme, this stuffy track, courtesy of the chafe bass line, is achest-pounding, good time harkening back to some of the Wu’s oldermaterial.

14. “Life Changes” — The heartfelt andemotionally sharp ODB eulogy that everyone chimes in on, accordingly.Raekwon pays his final respects, “My son gonna remember you / Rubbing astatue on his lap / That resemble you.” An appropriate tribute? Yes,definitely.