“First of all, who’s your A&R?

A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar

But he don’t know the meaning of dope

When he’s looking for a suit and tie rap

That’s cleaner than a bar of soap.”

—GZA, “Protect Ya Neck”

8 Diagrams is wack. We wanted to make punch-you-in-the-face music. RZA didn’t .?.?. he’s doing too much of this guitar shit. It’s like he’s got a guitar strapped to his back. He’s like a hip-hop hippie.”

—Raekwon in an interview last month

“Protect Ya Neck” wasn’t simply the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut single, it was a declaration of war — a filthy, five-minute fulmination decapitating the Golden Age of Afrocentricity and boho pacifism then in vogue. Rappers had been that angry before, but not eight of them swarming at once, each with his own unique, slaughterhouse-raw style and lyrics laced with crooked slang, comic book mythology and hazy 5 percent mysticism. Too grimy for radio play, Method Man sneered at “niggaz crossin’ over because they don’t know no better.” The GZA mocked clueless A&R men. The beat sounded like it was composed inside a dim, smoke-stained bomb shelter on Staten Island, with rats scurrying behind graffiti-scarred walls and the RZA hunched over in the cold, stoned, stitching Melvin Bliss breaks and grade-school piano lines through murky, crack-you-in-your-face drums. “Protect Ya Neck” lacked a hook, or any formal song structure. It didn’t need them. Back then, the RZA didn’t carry guitars, he screamed “protect ya neck” like a homicidal lunatic. And you protected your fucking neck.

That fall/winter of 1992, while the Clan recorded “Protect Ya Neck,” the two most popular rap records of the decade had been Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em and Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme. Arrested Development, with their aw-shucks affability and horseshoes and hippie vibe, were the Lil Wayne of the time, earning top honors in the 1992 Pazz & Jop poll. The GZA wasn’t lying. Not only were hardcore rappers not fucking with guitars, they even steered clear of R&B (“rap and bullshit”), then at the tail end of its New Jack Swing phase.

But you know the story. The Wu crossed over. Everyone crossed over. Biggie and Tupac died. Puffy, Master P, Cash Money and Aftermath drowned rap in the mainstream and the concept of selling out got hopelessly submerged around the time Puffy and Jimmy Page reworked “Kashmir” for Godzilla. And at the forefront was the Wu, with Hollywood dalliances, video games, comic books, dolls and clothing lines, complete with songs about Wu-Wear.

Blazing the trail was the RZA, who spent most of the last decade breaking bread with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and the guy who plays bass in System of a Down. Evolving past the alienation and rage-fueled Enter the 36 Chambers sessions, the Abbot turned into a Renaissance man, studying composition and theory, learning the guitar, piano and drums, and even writing The Wu-Tang Manual, arguably the only book in history with epigraphs from Dick Cheney and The Comic Book.

The owner of the Wu brand, the producer on all their best-selling efforts and a well-established film composer, the RZA doesn’t need Wu-Tang anymore. But the same can’t be said for the rest. Sure, Meth has carved out a niche acting career and modest midlevel sales, but really only Ghostface has kept the Wu torch alive, with a remarkably consistent streak of great solo records that showcased his virtuoso storytelling skills and ability to temper his Byzantine abstractions without any sort of artistic compromise.

8 Diagrams means a lot. It’s easily the Clan’s most anticipated record since Wu-Tang Forever marked the end of the Clan’s high-water mark. But at a time when unity should be at its strongest, the Wu have imploded. Raekwon and Ghostface popped up on YouTube to tell the world that the album is “wack,” and that Wu is going to re-form sans RZA because he’s a “sneaky nigga” who owes them money. That can’t be good for sales.

The schism is aesthetic. Rae and Ghost want a return to the “punch-you-in-your-face music” of 15 years ago, the RZA wanted 8 Diagrams to look 15 years forward, with his head full of cinematic, self-consciously epic visions that reflect a decade in Hollywood. The RZA owns the brand. The RZA won. As a result, 8 Diagrams is tailored for a future of orchestras playing rap in symphony halls, the very antithesis of “Protect Ya Neck.” If that was rap for the street, this is rap for the suites. But for all its grandiose intentions, 8 Diagrams shares the early Wu’s aversion to commercialism. Most songs lack hooks, while the drums take a back seat to Spaghetti Western strings, lysergic guitar crunching and weird R&B singers whose names (Sunny Valentine and Wiggles) read like the RZA plucked them out of episodes of The Care Bears. Even “While the Heart Gently Weeps,” an Erykah Badu and John Frusciante–aided interpretation of a song from the best pop songwriters of all time, turns into a molasses-slow drug dirge.

Somehow, it works. The Clan sound the best they have in a decade, all of them rapping like they have something to prove, particularly Method Man, who turns in his most inspired performance since Blackout! You get the sense that the revolution against RZA stems from frustration over how much they actually cared about the finished product. But music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As the RZA pointed out in his defense, Raekwon has his very own solo album of punch-you-in-your-face music, Only Built 4 Cuban Link 2,slated for release next year. Plus, there’s Ghost’s predictably excellent The Big Dough Rehab,with Tony Starks eschewing sonic innovation for well-worn Soul samples, while still continuing the trademark Wu brand of slang-dipped, intricate criminology raps.

Of course, Ghost and Rae have their points, 8 Diagrams’guitar wankery verges on the self-indulgent, its R&B singers seem superfluous, and RZA’s decision to stick a solo rant about religion (“Sunlight”) in the middle of the record sounds more ideally fitted for a Bobby Digital record. But ultimately, 8 Diagrams is the album the RZA had to make, the one that best reflected his evolution. Straining to summon long-ago visions of squalor on Staten after a night of smoking blunts at Quentin Tarantino’s place in the Hollywood Hills would’ve merely read as an impossible and stale attempt to recapture the element of the surprise that made “Protect Ya Neck” so revolutionary. 8 Diagrams might be jarring, but that’s the thing about a punch to the face. If you know it's coming, you’ll just duck.

The Wu-Tang Clan perform at the House of Blues on Sunday, December 23.

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