A Better Tomorrow (to be released Dec. 2, 2014)
These days you hear a lot of similak-breathed rappers bragging about how they’re going to change the game.
Twenty-one years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan didn’t just speak it. They actually did it.
The Wu combined their gritty Staten Island street stories with over-the-top kung-fu samples. They were real-life hood superheroes.
Their discography is stuff of legend — Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)? A classic. Wu-Tang Forever? Another classic. The W? Mighty close to classic status. Iron Flag? Very strong. And that’s not even counting the mountain of successful solo projects.
But years of infighting have begun to overshadow the Wu’s legacy. Their last LP, 2007’s 8 Diagrams, was decent but unfocused. Now, the aptly-titled A Better Tomorrow attempts to solidify hip-hop’s flagship crew. And it succeeds — just not in the way some Wu fans may have expected.
The album’s first cut, “Ruckus in B Minor” is authentically Wu to its core. Longtime Wu producer RZA crafts a track that sounds like a setting fit for grizzled urban cowboys. He even makes peace with Clan members: “Rae, all those bad times is behind us/Ghost, put that mask on to remind us/Method Man, let ’em know who’s New York’s finest.” The real star here, and throughout most of the album, in fact, is the GZA, whose mind-bending metaphors and flawless delivery throw back to the Wu’s glory days: “Forms circles like the rings of Saturn/Dust rocks and ice in a particular pattern/Then this fascinating picture has emerged from surface/A wonder of the young world with an urgent purpose.” Fire.
The recently-leaked “Necklace” uses its haunting sample (“Brother, I think that necklace is causing you too much trouble”) as a launching pad for the Wu’s narratives. It’s almost like a game of lyrical one-upsmanship as the Clan tries to top each other with more outlandish stories: Ghostface Killah relishes in attention from the ladies with Raekwon is prepared to go to war for his property — “I keep my neck frozen, .45 loaded, please don’t approach this.”
While a lot of the album is built around the dismal, dusty samples of the Wu’s heyday, like the cinematic battle theme “Pioneer the Frontier,” this album steps away from the norm to try new concepts. Sure, they don’t always work — “Keep Watch” would be perfectly fine with just its soul sample; the hook from crooner Nathaniel is too heavy-handed and glossy. He goes overboard on “Ron O’Neal” too.
But “40th Street Black/We Will Fight” is a noteworthy change of pace, fueled by a marching band that sounds like it migrated from Slip N Slide Records. It’s a different sound, but it works. “Preacher’s Daughter” rides off of a “Son of a Preacher Man” sample, allowing the crew to spit tales about a girl whose “father spit the gospel but she never caught the wisdom,” according to Ghost.
The last few tracks are a true departure from the Wu we grew up on. Gone are the angry young men, replaced with optimistic, mature adults. They recognize that the world sucks but they’re willing to change it themselves. Method Man spits one of the best verses on the album on the title track: “Screaming Jesus can save us/I can get the Bentley if I save up, but that’s another trick just to enslave us …Put our fathers in the cages, watch how mother struggles to raise us/But my ambition won’t let me live in this poor condition.” The album closes with “Wu-Tang Reunion,” where the Clan spit family values over a cookout-ready track. Yeah it’s jarring to hear them in such a jovial mood, but ODB already told you, Wu-Tang is for the children.
I expect A Better Tomorrow to get a bit of backlash from longtime Wu fans. No, it doesn’t sound like Only Built For Cuban Linx or Ironman or Liquid Swords — but it shouldn’t. These aren’t men in a midlife crisis, hustling on the corner while trying to relive their glory days of 1995. They’re adults and parents who are pushing past old beefs and using their sound to enlighten listeners.
It’s growth. It’s how you build a better tomorrow.
Best tracks: “Necklace,” “Ruckus In B Minor,” “Pioneer the Frontier”
4 stars out of 5