It's stunning how much power is contained in the three words "Wu-Tang Clan." As a sort of litmus test, if somebody identifies as a fan of the Wu, it means they possess more than a base-level, superficial appreciation of hiphop. (Celebs and politicos may claim to like a little Kanye West or even some "In Da Club" from time to time; the first to shout out "Black Shampoo" will have my eternal allegiance.) Even when Method Man was shilling Right Guard and hanging with Fred Durst, Wu-Tang has been synonymous with credibility; there's a good reason Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino are so eager to attach their films to Wu-mastermind the RZA. Locally, the words "Wu-Tang Clan" hold a more topical sheen, best expressed by a Reedie-looking kid wearing day-glo sunglasses in the Roseland bathroom a few weeks ago. "I can not believe," he huffed to his friend, "that the fucking Wu-Tang Clan is going to be here on New Year's Eve!" On a few levels, that made two of us.
8 Diagrams, the shockingly good new disc from RZA & Co., is only the fourth Wu-Tang album since they changed the face of rap with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993. (There's not nearly enough space here to demonstrate how Wu-Tang changed everything from rap's business models to its lingo to its sampling techniques, but their influence has been exhaustively documented elsewhere.) To consider that prior to 8 Diagrams, there were only about seven hours of proper, full-length Wu-Tang releases—more than one hour of which consisted of the dreadful Iron Flag—is astonishing. So is the fact that a rap group that made its biggest contribution nearly 15 years ago can still create such a ruckus today.
RZA unleashed a monster of a personal vision on 8 Diagrams; claustrophobic, ominous, densely layered, and supremely cracked out, it gives fractured, frantic form to the complexity of RZA's celebrated aesthetic, with nearly all of the eight surviving members attacking their verses like skilled, hungry veterans. But not everyone loves 8 Diagrams: Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, arguably the two best rappers of the whole outfit, have been dissing RZA's production and leadership left and right, even threatening to make another new Wu-Tang CD without his participation. (A profoundly un-Wu attitude!)
This dissension does not bode well for Portland audiences: All that stuff about Wu-Tang's genius and influence aside, they are a notoriously dismal live act. RZA evidently doesn't take roll, so people discuss Wu-Tang shows in fractions, as in, "Seven-eighths of the Clan were at the concert last night!" The members that do show up, however, trample each other's lines while barking into their own cuffed mics, creating a battery of ricocheting, distorted voices in the place of your favorite Method Man verse. As for the no-show rappers: When their part of the song approaches, DJ Mathematics stops the track entirely, ensuring that you never hear a single jam all the way through.
If you factor in New Year's Eve levels of onstage intoxication, and the fact that Portland is one of the least critical markets for Wu-Tang to impress, you've got a good argument for searching out other options for ringing in 2008. Throw in the mutinous hostilities of Raekwon and Ghostface and their infighting with the RZA, and even the most ardent "C.R.E.A.M." fan might be wise to investigate what else is happening this New Year's Eve.