Hip-hop is no country for old men. Pop music in general doesn't take kindly to fogies, but if you're a rapper, the options are especially slim: There's no Starbucks to help get your Paul McCartney on, no casino where you can get your Celine Dion on, no Broadway where you can get your Billy Joel on, not even a Rick Rubin to help you get your Johnny Cash on. For the majority of hip-hop's seniors (roughly, MCs age 35 and up) there are just varying shades of death to choose from: crankiness, irrelevance, Celebrity Fit Club and plain-old, unglamorous death itself.
There are probably kids doing the Crank That who have never even heard of the Wu-Tang Clan. Unlike the Notorious B.I.G., their early-'90s contemporary, the Staten Island Crew didn't suffer a tragic, legend-making end, nor did they inspire a generation of Wu-Cadets the way Christopher Wallace inspired so many Little Biggies. No nine-man, numerology-obsessed posses have sprung up in their wake: Nobody has dared to be that bizarre.
And yet, despite the odds, their fifth album is arrestingly, chillingly good. It doesn't include any overblown claims of invincibility; instead, it's a haunted house where samples shiver, floorboards creak and the scariest ghosts of all are the flinty-eyed MCs telling decades-old tales of desperation and violence with smoldering immediacy, like they're cursed to relive them endlessly. Here, Wu-Tang don't defy death; they fall into a grim lockstep with it.
8 Diagrams might be the quietest hip-hop album ever made. RZA, who produced 13 songs and coproduced the other two, cultivates a sinister hush throughout; gone are the spine-snap snares and street-mob chants of 36 Chambers, the synth sleaze of Forever and the brassy funk of The W and Iron Flag. The beats are ashen and skeletal, like the charred remains of a fire, and come laced with fantastic details: rattling chains, spindly guitar peals, warped toms and on and on. RZA has always been hip-hop's reigning minimalist, but his work scoring films--Kill Bill, most recently--seems to have strengthened his ear for ambiance and texture. "Gun Will Go" opens with some exuberant soul, then gives way to an icy two-note bassline and Method Man's evocation of some nightmarish urban nature preserve: "This is Poverty Island, man, these animals don't run/Slums where the ambulance don't come."
Method Man, who spent the past decade mutating from group hotshot into a poor man's Wayans brother, sounds especially rejuvenated. His voice is a corroded, serrated wonder, and for the first time in years he delivers rhymes to match. Raekwon, long negligible, returns to form, too, with thrilling true-crime raps. Unsurprisingly, the most virtuosic turn belongs to Ghostface, who's enjoying a seven-year hot streak. On "The Heart Gently Weeps," which ingeniously jacks the Beatles, he stages a chaotic shootout in a Pathmark that moves from the dairy section--"Damn, I got milk on my Clark's"--to the cleaning- supply aisle--"Shots was whizzing, hitting Clorox bottles!"
Which leaves the Other Guys: GZA, whose brags unfold in careful paragraphs, excitable Inspectah Deck, dead-calm Masta Killa and rumbling U-God. Like affable cousins at a family reunion, you don't want to get stuck in conversation with them for too long, but it wouldn't be the same party without them.
Someone, of course, isn't here, and it's easy to read the album's ghostly fog as a response to Ol' Dirty Bastard's fatal 2004 overdose. After the final song, an ODB freestyle from the early '90s revs up unexpectedly and, for a minute, it's as though that rowdy MC has cheated death. In hip-hop, it's tough to grow old, but that doesn't mean you can't live forever.