Wu-Tang Clan released "A Better Tomorrow," the proper follow-up to 2007's "8 Diagrams." While new Wu-Tang material is definitely a cause for celebration, the album may fall short of expectations.
It's been seven years since the Wu-Tang Clan released their last proper album, 8 Diagrams, but of course, that doesn’t mean the members of rap’s greatest clan have been prepping for an early retirement. Not by a long shot.
Since 8 Diagrams, there have been a number of efforts from Clan members, most notably records by Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and Method Man. While the three collaborated on 2010’s Wu-Massacre, they have also been involved in a variety of other projects.
Ghostface keeps busy by releasing material at the rate of an album a year. His output is defined not only by quality, but by an affection towards reinventing himself. On 2009’s Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City project, the God tried his hand at an R&B-influenced album. Along with 2010’s Wu-Massacre, Ghost also released Apollo Kids the same year, then the Sheek Louch collab Wu Block in 2012, then the epic Twelve Reasons to Die, which saw the MC turn back towards Enter The Dragon-esque soul beats, pioneered by none other than the RZA himself. Of course, this all sets the tone for 36 Seasons, his highly-anticipated, Brooklyn-soul, concept album about a vigilante superhero.
Raekwon is less prolific, but only slightly. On 2009’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, Rae did the impossible. He picked up exactly where OB4CL left off and delivered an album that was praised by critics and fans alike. The album had a remarkable variation of production, including beats from the likes of RZA, J Dilla, Dr. Dre, Alchemist, Pete Rock, and Marley Marl. Rae also continues to be Ghostface’s counterpart in live performances.
Method Man has been doing his thing too. In 2009, he released Blackout! 2, the follow up to his collaboration album with Redman. A Blackout! 3 is expected in the coming years, along with The Crystal Meth, his pushed-back upcoming solo LP. Method also keeps busy by doing a good bit of acting and a strong amount of touring, usually alongside Redman.
And these three aren’t the only busy (killa) bees. The RZA makes movies and headphones. Masta Killa put out an album in 2012, Inspectah Deck did one in 2013, and so did U-God. The GZA is suppose to put a new one out in 2015, and the entire Clan has brought their high-energy performances to the likes of Coachella and Bonnaroo, making them one of the few rap acts that can play a stage of that magnitude. Let’s also not forget that the Clan is always featuring each other on their projects, making any "beef" seem too trivial to ever get in the way of artistic integrity.
So everyone has been keeping busy, collaborating and rapping a bunch. It should all add up to an explosive posse album in A Better Tomorrow, project we’ve all been waiting for. Right!?
It just doesn’t QUITE add up like that, unfortunately.
The opening track and lead single “Ruckus in B Minor” is fucking awesome, and there’s really no other way to put that. Most fans were completely thrilled to hear a lead single featuring all nine Wu-Tang members. The fact that the beat is furious, verses are up-to-par and it’s a well-written song really set the bar high for the rest of the album, for better or worse.
“Felt” is a little odd, but that’s nothing new for the clan. The problem with it is that it completely deflates the energy built up by the "Ruckus" of the first track. “40th Street Black / We Will Fight” follows it up sloppily, squeezing 7 verses in the first 3:40 only to have the corny, marching-band hook ride out for a full minute.
Progress is one thing, but let’s not forgot where Wu-Tang’s hooks gained their notoriety…
“Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck wit!”
“Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money, Dolla Dolla bill ya’ll!”
“Shame on a nigga who tried to run game on a nigga!”
…all shouted by members of the clan. This isn’t ’93, but c’mon now…
“Mistaken Identity” is a pretty raw joint. Inspectah Deck, Method Man and U-God are given full-length verses before Cappadonna and Masta Killa toss 8 bars each at us. The beat is tight, the hook is simple and it comes across as a pretty well-focused track altogether. That is until the hook repeats for a solid two minutes, bringing a four-minute rap song to the unnecessary (and sort of annoying) six-minute mark.
The same cast holds it down on “Hold The Heater," but with a more obnoxious hook. Steve Aoki-esque synth-stabs and a screaming RZA don’t exactly add up to an enjoyable listen, and the absence of Ghost and Rae since the opening track is now noticeable.
“Crushed Egos” remedies that, though, as the Chef links up with the RZA for one of the better cuts off the album. Why? It’s 2:26 and no frills. It’s straight-up hip-hop, based on the RZA’s love of soul-sampled beats and Rae's rhymes. His screaming hook is a lot more tolerable over this kind of beat, and the fact that it doesn’t ride out for a full minute is a plus too.
RZA keeps the vibe going with the guitar upstrokes of “Keep Watch,” a relatively cool cut. The Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Cappadonna and GZA combo is back in action, meaning we are 30 minutes in with one Ghostface verse and two Raekwon features. Respect to the other dudes, but they simply don’t command attention like Rae and Ghost. Nathaniel’s hook doesn’t fit in with the grittiness of the clan, and is simply too polished to receive accolade. Speaking of polished…
The Disney musical of an intro we hear on “Miracle” is pretty much intolerable. Is this the same rap group that came out "raw, I'm rugged and raw" in '93? It completely destroys the intensity built up by solid verses, and despite the Rae/Ghost 1-2 punch at the end, this isn’t getting put in the same playlist as “Impossible.”
“Preacher’s Daughter” requires some effort to enjoy. The beat is awesome, and you can’t be mad at the song's reference. It’s really just RZA’s falsetto voice repeatedly singing the hook, and the extra syllable encountered from changing the word “son” to “daughter,” that hold this one back. Like most of the tracks before it, it isn’t BAD, but it isn’t exactly great either. No one is jumping up out of their seat with excitement when they hear these cuts.
And so the theme continues on with the rest of the album: it’s decent, but not great. Certainly not 36 Chambers great, or Wu-Tang Forever great, or even 36 Seasons great for that matter. It comes across as forced and unfocused.
There are some dope cuts on the second half of the album though, and that’s a bright side. “Necklace” is really ill, featuring sick verses from Raekwon and Ghostface alongside GZA and Cappadonna. The hook is a perfectly placed sample that says, “Brother, I think that necklace is causing you too much trouble,” a perfect shot at the entire rap scene.
“Ron O’Neal” hits hard as nails, with the horns blasting and the twangy soul guitars. The verses are sweet and the reemergence of Nathaniel works a lot better this time around. No awkward moments on this one; good job Clan! (Although the tongue-in-cheek congratulatory message is a sentiment to the album’s overall well-being, or lack thereof).
“A Better Tomorrow” plays like Nas’ “I Can.” The overwhelming positivity isn’t something you really look for in a Wu track, but it actually works pretty nicely. These dudes aren’t in the projects anymore, they aren’t teenagers, they aren’t (as) violent, and they left a positive hip-hop track on this one. Kudos.
“Never Let Go” is chock full of verses, keeping the hooks to a minimum and leaving the intro/outro to none other than Martin Luther King himself.
The final track, “Wu-Tang Reunion” relies heavily on an O’Jay’s sample in between verses from Masta Killa, Method Man and Ghostface. But despite the picture painted of a happy-go-lucky family reunion, the full album leads us to believe otherwise of the Clan members relationships.
What we have here, sadly, is a Wu-Tang Clan that is complying with the necessitation of recording an album together. RZA can collab with everyone from James Blake to Travis Barker, but can’t incite a “Clan in the front," riot-like performance out of the Wu-Tang Clan, at least not this time.
The 9 members of the Wu-Tang Clan, with RZA producing, obviously didn’t capture the lo-fi, kung-fu, hip-hop mastery of the first album, nor the experimentally polished vibe of the second album, and we would be fools to expect them to. However, we can expect them to capture the same greatness that they have pressed to recent efforts, and on the heels of Ghostface's new LP, this one just doesn’t add up the way we wanted it to.
That isn’t to say it isn’t good at all, it just isn’t the best Wu-Tang material we’ve ever heard, or even heard this year. That doesn’t mean we can’t be amped that hip-hop’s greatest gang of MCs got together and did 15 tracks, because that’s awesome. Luckily in the age of Spotify, we can add the dope ones to our playlists and forget about the awkward snoozers.
With highly-anticipated solo projects looming, “Ruckus In B Minor”, “Crushed Egos”, “Necklace”, “Ron O’Neal”, “Never Let Go”, and “Wu-Tang Reunion” will surely hold you over until the next awesome material from the Clan.
“Parlez vous, francais, mi amor, merci, oui oui, bon bons… And all that good stuff.”