A Better Tomorrow had been promised for the past two or three years, delayed to such a degree that I actually didn't believe it when I saw it sitting in my mailbox. On this project, producer and leader The RZA hoped to corral the other members of the Staten Island-based crew (Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, the GZA, Masta Killa, U-God, and the newest member Cappadonna, who pretty much has taken the place of the late Ol' Dirty Bastard at this point) into seeing his vision: a rap album that simultaneously celebrated the Clan's status as elder statesmen within our chosen genre and proved that these guys could still talk their shit with the best of them. The title A Better Tomorrow is, of course, taken from the John Woo flick of the same name and not from that Automator / Kool Keith project, so at least the group's tastes in cinema haven't been altered with age.
What has changed, though, is the actual music. Rhyming their asses off has never been a problem for any of these guys: the Wu-Tang Clan are still masters of the microphone, mixing their boasting and storytelling with quasi-religious psychobabble, pop culture references, and humor (the Wu-Tang Clan can be pretty funny when they're not taking themselves so goddamned seriously). However, The RZA, who has produced the majority of each group album, has evolved as a musician, moving from a dude who figured out how to program drums and shit through trial and error to a man who has seemingly mastered his domain, writing compositions, scoring films, setting up new business ventures, and seeking out new talent with the best of them. RZA even cut a deal with a speaker company to somehow release exclusive Wu-Tang content on the speaker itself: I don't know how that's worked out for him yet (the "exclusive" content was supposed to be a song or two cut from A Better Tomorrow), but I'm sure it will leak eventually, as hackers always find a way.
Given that the group's debut found them spitting hot fire over dusty samples and drum kicks, it was a paradigm shift to hear the Clan on their double-disc follow-up, Wu-Tang Forever, having to contend with the RZA's need to expand upon his production style (he kept referring to it as "digital orchestration"). However, throughout all of this, the Wu-Tang Clan never found themselves bowing to public pressure, and the group trusted The RZA to do what he needed to do behind the boards to secure a timeless sound that legitimately could not be compared to that of any of their peers.
The results of this experiment were met with more and more mixed reviews through The W, Iron Flag, and their last album, 2007's ill-received 8 Diagrams, which critics and fans alike savagely bashed for not staying true to the Wu-Tang formula. Hell, even the group themselves got involved: Raekwon the Chef, one of the most outspoken members of the Clan, trashed the project as not being true to the Wu's core. It was around this point that everyone's faith in The RZA grew a bit shaky, and an idea was tossed around for the group to release an album called Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, a double-disc effort on which RZA would produce the group on the first disc, while he would stick with just a microphone presence on the second while the group received beats from third parties. Obviously, this album never materialized, and Rae simply swiped the name for a solo album of his own, but still, that could have been kind of awesome. (Wu stans got a taste of what this could have sounded like with those two Fizzy Womack-executive-produced side projects, Wu-Tang Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons, both of which paired the Clan with outside influences.
A Better Tomorrow, the group's sixth album, dropping seven years after 8 Diagrams, is marked by the influence of a different Wu-related project, Ghostface Killah's concept album Twelve Reasons To Die, which was a mini-giallo with rhyming scored by producer Adrian Younge. Younge successfully manipulated samples and live instrumentation to set a bleak and vengeful tone for Pretty Toney to tell his story, which, if you don't recall, was pretty fucking good, and it impressed The RZA so much that he chose this project to switch up his style, even inviting Younge in to a few of the studio sessions. The use of actual instruments on a Wu-Tang Clan album is nothing new, but never before had the focus been placed so squarely on them: RZA even convinced longtime Wu-Elements 4th Disciple and Mathematics, both of whom contributed beats, to follow suit.
A Better Tomorrow was originally supposed to drop last year, you know, when it would have made actual sense to celebrate the twenty-year anniversary of an album that dropped twenty years prior, but one of the major reasons for the delay was in how goddamn difficult it is to get nine successful-to-semi-successful solo artists into the same room, especially when a handful of them work in more than one medium now (see: Method Man, RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface). Raekwon also talked his shit to the press, refusing to take part in the project until something The RZA did or said calmed him down enough to accept payment for his services rendered. And I also found out the other day that apparently there's a sequel to The RZA's directorial debut The Man With The Iron Fists being released soon: although he apparently only acts in it and co-wrote the screenplay, I'm sure that ate up some of Prince Rakeem's days.
A Better Tomorrow was preceded by three singles, "Keep Watch", "Ron O'Neal", and the title track, and the law of diminishing returns kicked in rather quickly. RZA's reliance on R&B hooks isn't anything new, but it's especially troubling for me right now, since all any Wu stan wants to hear are the guys ripping apart a hard beat, right? Based on what I've heard thus far, you will understand when I say that I don't have especially high hopes, but I'm trying to stay positive here.
1. RUCKUS IN B MINOR
Well, the song title is kind of cool, and all ten members of the Clan are featured (including Big Baby Jesus, represented in sound bites taken from various tracks). Obviously, "Ruckus In B Minor" is meant to evoke the introductory track from Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), "Bring Da Ruckus", even going so far as to have the group act out the kung-fu flick sample that opened the latter, but the music, from The RZA and Adrian Younge but co-produced by Rick Rubin for some reason, isn't nearly as immediate and threatening as the Wu were from the gate. The beat isn't bad, mind you: I appreciated that the instrumental ebbed and flowed depending on whoever was performing at the time. But if this is indicative of what A Better Tomorrow will sound like, then we have a fucking problem, RZA. Still, it was very nice to hear everyone on the same song once again.
Um, what the fuck is this shit? Masta Killa, Meth, Ghost, and Cappadonna find themselves tied up in a Wu-Tang-sponsored trap house and decide to rap about feelings or Muppets or something, I don't care, and it couldn't have been more misguided had they received directions to the moon by a blind armless man with a mild drinking problem. We get it: you guys have never cared much about how the next guy "Felt" regarding your own success. So what? I'm one of the biggest Wu stans that ever will be, and even I believe you're only as good as your last hit, and there are a lot of people who didn't like 8 Diagrams, so maybe this kind of boasting is premature at best. Less bullshit and more hardcore, please!
3. 40TH STREET BLACK / WE WILL FIGHT
Contrary to current rap trends, the song title "40th Street Black / We Will Fight" does not mean that the audio track features two separate songs. Rather, producer Allah Mathematics, with an assist from The RZA and the Scarlet Knights drumline from Rutgers University, gives seven of the nine (living) members of the Clan (Rae and Ghost are conspicuous in their absence) a showcase to spit their various boasts 'n bullshit. Even though the end result won't be chanted at football games anytime soon (the music sounds like it's trying too hard to ape previous Wu-Tang Clan hits, but not very well, as live instrumentation was never this group's forte), the track was okay enough, I guess. Still doesn't sound like the Wu, though. Hope that happens soon.
4. MISTAKEN IDENTITY (FEAT. STREETLIFE)
I'm really not sure what RZA was going for on here. Live instrumentation in the studio can sound amazing (mostly if you're The Roots), but when you form your group's sound around samples and dusty drum kits, you can't honestly believe that everyone is going to be one hundred percent on board when you switch direction. Probably doesn't help that "Mistaken Identity" sucks anyway: none of the rappers are really given enough time to explore the social ramifications of the subject matter, since their verses end right before they ever get around to saying, well, anything. Bleh. Oh, and Method Man's prized weed carrier Streetlife only appears on the (shitty) hook, so there's no need for you two to get your hopes up.
5. HOLD THE HEATER
RZA's intro and the hook are fucking godawful, but the rest of "Hold The Heater" at least seems like it might have come from the same group that released "C.R.E.A.M." The actual verses are pretty good (although was it really necessary for the GZA to explain, yet again, how The RZA has a plan for the group's success way back when they first formed?), and the instrumental stomps around the flexible guitar sample with purpose. Could have been much worse, I guess.
6. CRUSHED EGOS
It seems that The RZA listened to Ghostface Killah's Twelve Reasons To Die and took the wrong lessons away, because while the music on "Crushed Egos" itself (co-produced with Adrian Younge) sounds alright as an instrumental, none of the rappers involved (Raekwon, RZA, GZA) seem all that interested in it, and the listener is left thinking that these elderly gentlemen (in hip hop terms, anyway) couldn't crush a grape, let alone an ego, nor would they ever be challenged to do so. I bet everyone playing at home is really missing the production from 8 Diagrams right about now.
7. KEEP WATCH (FEAT. NATHANIEL)
The first official single, forever ruined by the unnecessary Nathanial hook that I genuinely was hoping was an April Fool's joke from producer Mathematics, included just so The RZA would have something to trim from the track for inclusion on the project. Sigh. Allah Math's instrumental is decent otherwise, and the four verses (from Meth, Deck, Cappa, and the Genius, who usually sits out tracks such as this) all sounded good enough to build a buzz around A Better Tomorrow as a whole. A remix featuring all nine remaining members of the crew could be a good idea if next week's sales figures of the album are lacking, guys (and they will be): just don't forget to mysteriously lose the chorus somewhere in the vicinity of the East River.
8. MIRACLE (FEAT. NATHANIEL)
The cheesy-as-shit vocals (some of which are credited to Tyler Diggs, probably a relative of The RZA's, and Tatum Miranda) bring A Better Tomorrow to a fucking halt, and they last for quite a while, rendering this 4th Disciple and RZA co-production as easily one of the worst songs the Wu-Tang Clan have ever recorded. The rest of the track does the group no favors: it is possible to write non-awful, non-magnet-related lyrics with a positive bent, Masta Killa. The team of Masta Killa and the Rebel INS are trumped by Rae and Ghost (who don't perform their verse tag-team style: I just like referring to them as "Rae and Ghost"), but none of that will matter, since you two will never actually listen to this audio track in full. Fuck this song and its bitch mother.
9. PREACHER'S DAUGHTER
RZA's production isn't bad: one could certainly do a lot worse than scour "Son Of A Preacher Man" for source material. But taking the subject matter and twisting it around to reflect the opposite sex is hardly the way to get any female audience to care about A Better Tomorrow. At least Prince Rakeem convinced Meth and Ghost to contribute: those two are the Clan members best suited to write love raps. But for being the twenty-year anniversary album The RZA still apparently believes this project to be, doesn't this theme seem to be too generic and, well, small for what is supposed to be a celebration?
10. PIONEER THE FRONTIER
Sounds like a goddamn mess before you figure out just what exactly RZA was aiming for: a throwback to "Protect Ya Neck", complete with an Ol' Dirty Bastard sound bite. The RZA is in full-on Bobby Digital-could-give-a-shit mode during his opening verse, but he isn't awful, and everyone else rides the beat as admirably as possible, its slow-crawl menace at least evoking a small partial memory of why anyone would give a shit about A Better Tomorrow. Not terrible: it'll probably end up on my Wu-Tang iTunes playlist, if only because I have to pull something from this album or else I'll be considered an outright failure as a Wu stan, but I can't promise that I won't just skip past the song whenever it pops up.
4th Disciple produced this track, too, which recently leaked to the Interweb, even though he's credited by his given name in the liner notes, which is weird, since 4th's credited by his nickname on that bullshit "Miracle"; if you were really trying to hide your contributions, you got your shit mixed around, man. The movie sample laid in throughout breaks the verses up but slows down the momentum, giving the audience so much time to breathe that they may as well also use the restroom, every. Goddamn. Time. So that probably wasn't the best idea. However, Cappadonna, Rae, Ghost, and hey look, there he is again, The Genius all sounded pretty good, and the rest of the instrumental is as close to Wu-esque as we'll probably get, so we should probably appreciate it more. Also, The RZA didn't do anything but mix this track. Hooray?
12. RON O'NEAL (FEAT. NATHANIEL)
The second single from A Better Tomorrow, and the second single to elicit an exasperated reaction from me, thanks to yet another Nathaniel hook. Seriously, RZA? Did the man save your children from a burning bus or something? You really thought that was what "Ron O'Neal" needed? Oh well, ignore the vocals and you'll find a meh track that makes it seem like the Wu should have collectively quite while they were ahead. I never really cared for this track, and within the context of the album, not a damn thing has changed.
13. A BETTER TOMORROW
So, obviously, The RZA has forgotten that there's already a song called "A Better Tomorrow" in the Wu-Tang Clan's back catalog. (See: Wu-Tang Forever, disc one.) At least it isn't the exact same song. However, this version is swallowed whole by the sample, taken from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody", so the positive-themed lyrics are doomed to remain undiscovered by hip hop heads who are otherwise puzzled as to whatever the fuck happened to The RZA's production mind. The backmasked bars toward the end were also unnecessary: this song doesn't deserve to carry any level of mystique. I like that the album's covert positive themes built up to this title track, but I don't care how many late-night talk shows the Wu perform this on: I don't really care for it all that much. In fact, with all honesty, the only part of this song I actually liked was when I read former Wu in-house vocalist Tekitha's name in the liner notes on background vocal duties. At least the group remembered she existed. But seriously, no Blue Raspberry on what is supposedly your final album, guys?
14. NEVER LET GO
Takes the positive themes surrounding the title track and runs with them, even going so far as to incorporate elements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech into "Never Let Go" itself. Pretty ballsy, RZA. I'm kidding: that move is egotistic as hell. The live instruments work on this track much more so than on "A Better Tomorrow", though, and the verses reflect actual effort put into what could have been the album's centerpiece, especially, surprise surprise, U-God's contribution, which is excellent right up until the point where he urges listeners to "Never Let Go" of the soap. The fuck, man? The RZA also chips in some lyrics that explain how he feels about Wu-Tang's legacy today, which was nice.
15. WU-TANG REUNION
A Better Tomorrow ends with a previously-released track that was once called "Family Reunion", but don't get too excited: even with that title, the song only features a handful of Clan members, and was really only called "Family Reunion" in honor of the source material, the O'Jays track "Family Reunion". The RZA's production hews pretty close to the original song, and the verses (provided by Meth, Masta Killa, and Ghostface Killah) are all very happy and pleasant: I even dug Pretty Toney's extended verse-long shout-out to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. And The RZA's closing statements end the project nicely. My complaint is this: this is how you choose to end the album? With a song that's been available online for over a fucking year and only features four of the
THE LAST WORD: There are many Wu stans in denial right now, but luckily for you two, I'm not one of them: if this is the lasting legacy The RZA saw for the Wu-Tang Clan after twenty-one years in the game, it would have been better if the group had forgotten about the milestone entirely. A Better Tomorrow is, by a country goddamn mile, the Clan's worst album. It sounds exactly like eight rappers being held hostage by the many ridiculous whims of their leader, who had long ago transcended the world of relevancy and good goddamn sense, unable to escape from his clutches long enough to fight for the extension of their respective solo careers. Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and Inspectah Deck all do an okay-enough job behind the microphone, mostly because they were forced to do so at liquid swordpoint, but even they come across as bored off their asses half the time: still, Wu stans should still continue to look out for ongoing solo efforts from that quartet, in addition to maybe the GZA, who contributes a hell of a lot more than he usually does, but with mixed results. (I say that last sentence even knowing full well that Raekwon's F.I.L.A. ain't dropping anytime fucking soon.) I understand that everyone is twenty-one years older than they were when they were novices starving for attention and mic time, and you can't keep rapping about the same struggles when you have families and mortgages and employees to support, but A Better Tomorrow is so far removed from the Clan aesthetic that it's almost difficult to believe that this RZA is the same guy who was calling all the shots for the group for five years in the 1990s, at least until you realize that A Better Tomorrow actually represents RZA's natural transition from dusty, sample-filled beats to digital orchestration to live instrumentation firmly planted up his own asshole. A Better Tomorrow is The RZA's baby: it seems none of the other living members of the group had any say in the matter, and that lack of collaborative spirit on an album that is ostensibly full of posse cuts is especially damning. All of this could have been forgiven, though, if the music was any good. Although I am an 8 Diagrams apologist and feel that album received a lot of shit unfairly, I will throw down the gauntlet and say, unequivocally, that A Better Tomorrow is fucking terrible, and I say that even though I will admit that a couple of the songs on here were alright: I just don't think "alright" is good enough when it comes to my favorite rap group of all time. To continue with the Asian themes they've cultivated and appropriated throughout the last two decades, the Wu-Tang Clan have brought shame upon their families, and it's all The RZA's doing. Perhaps all of those calls around the time of 8 Diagrams' release for the Clan to release a group effort without any RZA production should have been heeded: alas, since this is supposed to be the Clan's final album, it's far too late, and it fucking sucks to see their legacy spiral downward with this bullshit effort. Everyone would be better suited to pretending A Better Tomorrow never happened.
At least we might still have the Cilvaringz-produced Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, Wu-Tang's "secret" album that is supposedly supposed to tour museums before they sell the lone copy for millions: that shit was recorded quite a while ago, so maybe Cilva was able to keep the group aesthetic intact.