After seven years and a handful of disagreements and reconciliations, it seems we’re finally getting “A Better Tomorrow,” what is rumored to be the last Wu-Tang Clan album. Whether it’s arguments over the artistic direction of the crew or people getting short-changed during business agreements, it seems like the Wu isn’t short of controversy. Nonetheless, this aging group of world-dominating emcees and producers still garners buzz for their lyrical prowess and musical finesse. While they certainly don’t have the conviction and the synergy that altered the history of hip-hop in the ‘90s, Wu-Tang fans are sure to find some fiery gems while newcomers are left with a few good singles to chew and a few others they might find disappointing.
While I certainly don’t expect the sonic styling of “36 Chambers,” I was caught off-guard by the large scope of genres RZA attempted to grasp in 66 minutes’ worth of album time. Yes, the signature kung-fu samples and the eerie dark beats are still vibrant and intact, but songs like “Preacher’s Daughter” and “Miracle” take an awkward turn for the worse with out-of-place elements like overly sentimental backing vocals or what sounds like a stale attempt at country-inspired boom-bap beat. Conceptually, one can infer RZA has one eye on the past and one eye on the future as he attempts to be musically progressive while still trying to incorporate remnants of the Wu-Tang Clan’s original style. This ends up making for moments on the album that seem too neutral and mediocre to really amaze me into thinking this is a monumental way for the Wu to go out.
RZA’s safe choices leave a lot to be desired, save for the honorable word-bending talents of his peers that paint vivid pictures among soulful and ninja-esque breakbeat canvases. This translates into a very scattered experience for the listener, as you have gleaming guitar riffs that sound like they are ripped from a spaghetti Western to triumphant horns and whiney electronic influences. Hope isn’t entirely lost, as tracks like “Necklace,” “Pioneer Frontier,” “Ron O’Neal,” and “Crushed Egos” keep things exciting with basslines pumped with gritty shades of their original New York sound. It seems RZA excels when he’s keeping things in house and authentic but as he ventures to be more diverse, a sense of cheesiness begins to show, making me want to block out parts of the hooks or bridges for the meat of the lyrics.
When the listener isn’t being distracted by mediocrely orchestrated attempts at being open-minded, RZA gives his fellow emcees Method Man, Raekwon, GZA and Ghostface Killah opportunities to execute classical lyrical dominance. On “Necklace,” Raekwon gives us memorable and animated verses packed with vivid imagery: “I keep my neck frozen, .45 loaded, please don’t approach this / Rope is so ferocious, diamonds that shine in oceans.”
Abstractly structured, “Felt” has Method Man nearly dominating every track he jumps on using his delivery to give typical words color and pop: “Use a sharpie, don’t need the felt / Marker, walk on water, I see how Jesus felt / No rhyme or reason, just bleeding, my every breathing’s felt / This about a thesis that even paraplegics felt.” GZA the Genius proves his name, as he artfully rhymes everything from scientific diction to the Supreme Alphabet in precise prose. Wu-Tang fans are sure to find their favorite members “going off” but objectively only some really stand out with memorable and infectious virtuoso.
For a moment it seemed like “A Better Tomorrow” would never see the light of day. But now that it’s here, it seems the songs are only satisfying in parts rather than holistically. The Wu-Tang fan in me wants the relentless shaolin shaman of the golden age of their career, but the critic and music lover in me knows that the time for that has past. I think the Clan knows this and is comfortable with coming together on an album such as this simply for the sake of the fans. Fans, who know Wu-Tang’s members, are in a different place in their lives as is the world. They have families and see that the world needs music that is more positive, despite them still delivering blistering mouth inflections and clever metaphors about their favorite vices. This isn’t the best of the prolific conglomerate and I don’t think it needs to be or was intended to be. Instead we get a handful of great songs to add to our library coupled with a mixture of feelings that leave us desiring more.
Rating: 3 stars