5. Ghostface Killah-Big Doe Rehab.
21. Wu Tang Clan-The 8 Diagrams.

How the fuck does GFK do it? Album after album, he consistently brings the best beats, and wittiest verses, in all of hip hop. And instead of bringing in name-dropping cameos to add a verse after he’s done, he truly collaborates with his guests, punctuating their verses with his own characteristic, breathless rants. This year–nay, this very month–Pretty Toney made the ballsy move of competing with his own band: And slammed their impressive, long-awaited reunion album right down to the streetop.

But even if the full Wu couldn’t compete with its lone member, The 8 Diagrams is far from disappointing. In their first studio release since the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, GZA, RZA, Method Man, Raekwon, U-God, Inspecta Deck, Masta Killa, and Ghostface Killa reform like Voltron to produce their second greatest album ever. RZA is still brilliant in both his choice of beats and his complex, layered approach to hip hop: A great Wu Tang song is marked not only by the rough, rugged, and often paranoid lyrics of whichever master is at the mic, but by the understory told through the music. And the individual members are in fine form too, as if they know that this album could very well be the launchpad for the success of their future solo work—or, just as easily, it could sound a death knell for subsequent success. Method Man, one of my least favorite of the Clan, brings his best work since Enter the 36 Chambers on the lead track, Campfire, and even U-God shows skills on the drug anthem, Get Them Out Ya Way Pa. I admit, I was concerned by the underwhelming single, While My Heart Gently Weeps, featuring Erykah Badu. GFK had already taken The Beatles on, several times, on mixtapes, and his stuff was just . . . Better. But when I heard the track again, in the context of the full record, it worked for me.

I read an article that quoted Ghostface as saying the following about 8 Diagrams: “RZA is fumbling the ball. . . . His music wasn’t sounding like how it was when we first came in. And it’s hurting us. People want that old Wu-Tang shit, but you tryin’ to make new shit—tryin’ to play live instruments, instead of just goin’ to the crates and just do what you do best. You still a master at what you do, but right now you ain’t lookin’ like that master, ’cause you tryin’ to do other stuff. We were just upset with the way things was comin’ out.”

But in the same article, Ghost defends Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come because an artist in his late 30s can’t be expected to sound like he did in his early 20s. He has to grow up. Diagrams is RZA’s Kingdom Come. It’s still dark and thick and disturbing, but it uses a live band and longer musical clips—it represents the DJ as a songwriter, rather than as a hook-maker. I will probably get lots of hate mail for saying this, but Diagrams is Wu’s second best album. Like their first, it takes risks by delving into new styles and featuring almost ballad-like soundbeds. It’s a much better album than everyone else says it is.

There’s been lots of talk about “concept rap” albums this year, between Lupe, NaS, MF Grimm, and Jay-Z, and I’m a fan of all those releases, but both Big Doe Rehab and 8 Diagrams are organic albums that don’t need a concept. They are best heard in a single listen, and that’s not because they adopt characters and tell a story over the course of the album. It’s because they are created by true artists who understand that only half of storytelling involves words—the other half is mood and delivery.

As for mp3s from these albums, they’re RIAA releases, so you’ll have to be content with a mixtape track and a live show (a repost).

Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin To Fuck With-Rage Against the Machine

Clientele Kidd-Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Fat Joe (Remix) (Mixtape)

Celebrate (Mixtape version)-Ghostface

Set It Off (Big Daddy Kane cover) (live)-Ghostface

C.R.E.A.M.-Ghostface (live)

Go here for a full live Ghost show!

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