On Dec. 11, almost 15 years after they introduced themselves with a little hip-hop record called Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),Staten Island’s favorite kung-fu-obsessed rap crew is set to drop its fifth studio record (8 Diagrams)–and apparently, Shaolin is burning.

First there was the issue of Ghostface’s record coming out the same day as the new Wu joint, prompting group beatsmith the RZA (pictured) to insist they push 8 Diagrams back a week. Then Ghost and Raekwon started beefing publicly about RZA owing them money. And now, Rae and Ghost are saying the new album was rushed and that it lacks the gritty, minimalist beats that made them famous in the first place. (The RZA, for his part, says everything is just fine.)

So, is 8 Diagrams really garbage or has Ghostface’s recent success and acclaim simply gone to his head? Well Popwatchers, I’ve heard the record, and as much as it pains me to say, the Wu definitely seem a little off their game on this one. Assuming I’ve heard the final track order, it starts off with a couple of vintage Wu Bangers, and some of the rhymes (especially those from U-God) are pretty tight. But things trail off quickly and get marred by vapid guest appearances (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante playing on a weak track sampling the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; a pointless vocal sample from George Clinton) and a failure to tie together RZA’s cold, urban beats into fleshed-out compositions. There are flashes of greatness, but 8 Diagrams is too inconsistent and sounds like a group of guys that would rather be doing something else. Given how many successful solo careers the collective has already launched, and the fact that Wu Tang co-founder Old Dirty Bastard is now deceased, I can’t help but wonder if this will be their last group effort. But maybe that’s just me. What do you think, Popwatchers? Is the Wu finally through, or does the Tang still rock this thang?

addCredit(“RZA: John Sciulli/ “)