After two years of contentious attempts at coming together as one, the Wu-Tang Clan finally completed and released their 20th anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, last December.
As part of a series commemorating this album's release, I ranked the albums in their catalogue, examined the original (and better) "A Better Tomorrow" and even attempted to compare each member to an NBA player from the '90s. Now, finally, we take a look at A Better Tomorrow, a mostly disappointing album that still gave us plenty to talk about. I'm a little late in reviewing it (most reviews came in shortly after the album's early December release) but the extra time has at least allowed me to soak things in a little more while tempering my initial reactions.
Since it's a special occasion and there's so much to talk about with regards to this album, I decided to experiment with breaking the review down according to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (with respects to Sergio Leone). Enjoy.
The Genius brought his A game on A Better Tomorrow with a surprising jolt of energy and enthusiasm in his delivery we hadn't witnessed from him in a while. Fans had begun to fear the 48-year-old lyrical swordsman was slowing down as his last album Pro Tools was a snoozer, his flow had begun to sound disinterested, and he'd often resorted to standing still on stage with one hand in his pocket when performing live. The lyrical content never faltered, but his verses sounded lifeless.
Right from his first A Better Tomorrow appearance on the opening track "Ruckus in B Minor" Gza sounds enlivened and the lyrics are as deep and complex as ever. He begins by rhyming slowly, likening rap cyphers to the rings of Saturn, before the beat flips and he spits rapidly about the importance of the true art of hip hop. This refreshing approach continues throughout the album, he's "letting off verbal thunderbolts" on the uptempo "40th Street Black/ We Will Fight", steals the show on one of the album's best tracks "Necklace" where he twists the jewelry-snatching theme with a phenomenal verse describing the chemical element of gold, flipping various metaphors and outlining the absurdity of how this "Malleable ductile metal" can "get you shot for a Flintstone, killed for a pebble."
His most exciting appearance, though, comes in the form of a heavy, cosmology-themed verse on the fantastic "Keep Watch". He parallels the Clan's impact with the development of a galactic core and then likens the illuminating wisdom of their art to the guidance of celestial bodies (throwing in a chess metaphor for good measure):
The bars unlock the power of the stars
The mirror in the telescope pinpoint the gods
from a distance, acting as a guiding coach
Analyze the board, universal approach
Re-tune the soul to a certain pitch
changing the frequency frequently, hitting a certain switch
the love is paramount, the connect is brotherly
Respect for the intellect and broad discovery
On 8 Diagrams the Clan's most stoic member announced his newfound status as one of the group's premier stars, shining with an enlivened, dynamic delivery to go along with his usual brand of artful lyrical craftsmanship. On ABT Masta Killa solidifies that position. The album's overall departure from the rough, rugged sound doesn't exactly suit the High Chief perfectly, but he appears on more tracks than anyone except Method Man and provides nothing but razorsharp darts. His cinematic, "Drama at the opera, crime story novel/ Tuxedo-suited, silencer on the nozzle" verse on the controversial "Miracle" is one of the best moments of the whole album.
Speaking strictly of lyrics and writing ability, the only Wu members who've actually improved over the years are Gza and Masta Killa (and perhaps Raekwon). They can all still rap very well, but most of them have lost that knack for esoteric, cryptic poetry that so defined Wu-Tang during their loftiest heights.
Mista Mef's still got it. The raspy, baritone flow and funky wordplay are a constant throughout ABT. He's most impressive on the darker-toned "Felt" and fast-tempo "40th Street" showing off his worldclass ability to ride a beat and enunciate bars like an older Tony Hawk flipping spins and showing skateboarding young'uns that the skills stay embedded in his DNA.
I can't help but respect Method Man for how he's handled himself through these latest Wu affairs. It was Method Man who rose to grander fame than anyone else in the crew, Rza included, and he is certainly the most recognizable household name, a solo star in the 90s, broader pop culture star in the 2000s, probably the wealthiest group member other than Rza. Yet he asked for no money up front to record the album and was present for studio sessions right from the get go. Contrast that with Raekwon and Ghostface who, despite owing all of their success to Wu-Tang recordings, openly clashed with Rza over money and creative control during the last 8 years, mucking up the chemistry of the Clan's last two albums and letting their egos sabotage the group's efforts. Johnny Blaze may have had some lapses in musical quality over the years, but he's never put himself first at the expense of the W.
4th Disciple & Adrian Younge
The album's biggest drawback is the weak production but all of the crappy beats are Rza's. The contributions of 4th Disciple and Adrian Younge make for the best beats on A Better Tomorrow. Everyone hates the Disney-flavored singing Rza added on to "Miracle" but nobody can deny how fantastic the 4th Disciple beat is. 4th also produced the standout track "Necklace", one of the few tracks on the album that truly sounds like Wu-Tang. As for Adrian Younge, his intriguingly effective blend of live instrumental funk/jazz/hip hop is the sound Rza was aiming for with this album. Yet Rza executed it quite poorly (his midtempo soft jazz jams are thoroughly unexciting). The sole beat produced by Adrian Younge reveals the great potentials of this style as "Crushed Egos" roars with thick drums, reverberating organ keys and heavy bass. It could've been a much better album with more production from the likes of these two, more on that later.
Speaking of "Crushed Egos", the album's most reluctant participant was granted two verses on one of the strongest instrumentals on the record. Rae has come to perfect his unique brand of slang-weaving and picture frame imagery over the years and "Crushed Egos" feels like a showcase for why he is presently such an integral piece of the Wu Voltron puzzle. For all the annoying financial fuss and "creative differences" Raekwon initially surrounded this project with, it is admirable and impressive how high quality his contributions finally ended up being. The slang matrix splayed out over "Crushed Egos" is the ultimate example of that. Unsurprisingly though, there's not nearly enough Raekwon on this album. He's got only five verses, though all of them are on significant tracks ("Ruckus in B Minor", "Crushed Egos", "Miracle", "Necklace", and "A Better Tomorrow"). He makes the most out of his appearances, but his absence on much of the record is noticeable.*
*I've also detected numerous subtextual references to the internecine strife in both Rae and Ghost's lyrics. Admittedly, I'm taking interpretive liberties and reaching here but I do think there's something to it. In "Crushed Egos" Rae refers to "The dynasty Mr. Russell built" seemingly crediting ODB with the Wu dynasty as opposed to Rza; on "Ruckus in B Minor" Rae boasts about his team but qualifies "first we gotta win with no stalemate"; and even on "Miracle" the assassin Rae laments having to waste a comrade who "fucked the trust up, it's ruined." He's got mixed feelings, "It's my man, at the same time I don't wanna do him/ he violated, broke a major code, pa what you stealing?" I can't help but detect hints of Rae's mixed feelings for Rza, expressed frequently and openly in the months leading up to the album release.
Inspectah Deck's voice had actually started to fade the last 7 or 8 years and fans questioned if his skills were doing the same. Or maybe he just needed some good herbal tea. On ABT he flows with confidence and alacrity, even rapping bars in Spanish and French on "Keep Watch". Deck is all over this album, manning the frontlines with an imposing and exciting style, the lyrical swordplay still chopping off heads, as for instance on "Pioneer the Frontier": "Circle my square, I dare you braveheart/ Before I leave ya head in ya hands, what's your name huh?" The lyrical content has certainly diminished since the glory days of "Socrates philosophies" but it's still plenty fun to hear Deck rip off rhymes pieced together of TV show titles.
Similar to Masta Killa, on the group's previous album 8 Diagrams the unheralded U-God established a newfound status as one of the more dynamic and reliable spitters in the crew. He's not given nearly enough mic time on A Better Tomorrow, but it's refreshing how good he sounds. His verse on "Ruckus in B Minor" is one of my favorites. On an album lacking in grimeyness, U-God delivers "Dirty trucker pit stop shit." (See my post on the original 1997 track "A Better Tomorrow" where it was peak U-God who stole the show.)
First, just to be perfectly clear: I've got immense respect for Rza, he's always been one of my favorite lyricists, he's an important contemporary philosopher and without a doubt one of the most influential people in my life. I feel smarter whenever I listen to that man speak. That being said, he really fucked up here. I actually feel bad for him. Here's why.
In the period leading up to this album, I tried to keep up with Rza's many public appearances and interviews trying to get the scoop on things. Addressing the remarkable rift within the crew since 8 Diagrams, Rza talked about how some of the Wu members (ahem, Rae & Ghost) wanted him to relinquish production to popular outside producers, folks like Swizz Beats and Kanye West (gag!). He admitted that he was willing to consider this except there was a conundrum here: dudes like Kanye routinely ask Rza for beats, not the other way around, and even if Rza did bring some of those guys in to produce, the fans would inevitably gripe that "that ain't Wu-Tang!" So for the new album commemorating the Clan's 20th anniversary, it made sense that the one guy who's most responsible for building the foundation of that legacy, the in-house producer who singlehandedly crafted all of their classic albums, would be tasked with producing it. He really had no other choice.
Throughout his many promotional interviews, Rza made it clear that with A Better Tomorrow he wanted to move away from the Wu's standard hardcore rough stuff to a softer, more positive and uplifting sound. He continually emphasized that the crew was not completely behind him on this, but he trusted his own vision. Sadly, it turned out Rza was wrong and his detractors were right. The album suffers from a pervasive cornyness and Rza's beats often sound either disarmingly boring ("Hold the Heater", "Ron O'Neal") or overproduced ("Pioneer the Frontier", "Felt"). It's glaringly obvious that Rza, who long ago launched into a new career of acting, filmmaking and creating movie soundtracks, has lost touch with hip hop. The live instrumentation idea was a noble one but it ended up sounding way too crisp and clean, with most of the album feeling like mid-tempo jazz, funk, or soft rock instead of Wu-Tang's special brand of hardcore hip hop. Even Rza's verses, of which there are very few, are poorly conceived. I can't believe my ears when I hear the simplistic ending to his "Hold the Heater" verse: "This is odd, so throw it in your iPod."
How could this all have been prevented? Bringing in popular mainstream hip hop producers certainly wasn't the answer. Ideally, Rza would've had his many students who've mastered the Wu sound handle the production, a passing of the torch to the likes of Cilvaringz, 4th Disciple, Bronze Nazareth, et al. But, again, this is the 20th anniversary album. To step aside and let someone else be in charge of the production would've amounted to Rza admitting he has declined or lost his touch.
Even being generous about his production and accepting that this is an album with a lighter, positive tone, there's still the unforgivable inclusion of so many unbearably corny R&B choruses and random singing. This kind of thing is what Wu fans tend to hate the most and it's all over this album. As I mentioned in my review of the Clan's catalogue---when 8 Diagrams came out and Ghost & Rae shitted on its production they were actually off-base, the beats weren't so bad, "Instead, the chink in Rza’s armor was his inexplicable inclusion of whiny R&B hooks."
It's painful to admit but let's be realistic: Ghostface Killah has lost a step or two. The abstract imagery, eye-opening detail, and deliciously flavorful bars that we've come to associate with Ghost now rarely appear. It seems that as he becomes a bigger mainstream star, dropping major solo albums left and right, the quality of his verses is declining. It's sad because he established a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative lyricists on the planet, but lately he's proved over and over again that he is nowhere close to being that guy anymore. He's admitted to dealing with a huge workload, maybe he's stretched too thin. Either way, Ghost has been the black sheep of the Clan for their last two albums. He barely appeared on 8 Diagrams and even missed out on recording a verse for the ODB tribute track "Life Changes", then shitted on the album to the media. Interviews** and news accounts paint a picture of Ghost being impossible to reach, often going AWOL, and it's obvious that many of his verses on A Better Tomorrow were recorded at the 11th hour. He also told a boldfaced lie at the Clan's Warner Bros. press conference, stating that ABT is his favorite Wu album since Wu-Tang Forever. His last two solo projects have received a great deal of promo and hype but also mediocre reviews from critics who seem to agree that while the production and features are great, Ghost sounds like a bloated shell of his former self, throwing out disappointingly simplistic raps with a mundane flow. His occasional appearances on ABT are no different. His greatest moment is a valiant attempt at vulnerability on "Miracle" that falls flat in the end and his verse on "Ron O'Neal" is actually cringe-worthy.
**This is how Grantland's Amos Barshad, who interviewed every living member of the Clan last year, described trying to connect with Ghost:
After roughly six months of emails, calls, texts, and on-my-knees pleading with various representatives, I never secured a proper interview with Ghostface Killah. One hopefully illuminating side note: Ghostface’s main point of contact is a guy once memorialized on record for his propensity for the sexual technique of fisting. Also, while we’re here, a representative text from my myriad attempts to set up an interview: “He’ll call you in 30 from an unlisted number."
Too much Cappadonna
Nothing against Cappuccino the Great but he doesn't have the range to appear on this many tracks. This is what happens when you have to fill in for absentees like Rae & Ghost.
The first time my girlfriend heard me playing A Better Tomorrow it didn't take long for her to flatly admit: "this is corny." Corny is not an adjective typically associated with Wu-Tang. They've tended to make seemingly corny or nerdy things like chess, comic books, mythology, and kung-fu flicks cool. On A Better Tomorrow it's not so much that their lyrics are corny---though Rza's attempts at rallying the crew to create concept songs occasionally come off as gimmicky and forced as with "Preacher's Daughter" and "Never Let Go"---but the overall vibe created by so many singing hooks and unspectacular beats is simply lame. I find it hard to listen to "Wu-Tang Reunion" because the beat and chorus are so damn corny, while "A Better Tomorrow" is a solid track ruined by an overly sentimental chorus. All in all, I think this again falls on Rza. The core of this record, its rapping, is solid but it arrives thickly wrapped in tacky packaging.
What the fuck is this guy doing on a Wu-Tang album? Seriously. It's one thing to have him sing a few opening bars as on "Mistaken Identity" but by the time "Ron O'Neal" rolls around you're left wondering what in the hell Rza was thinking giving this guy so much mic time. The "Ron O'Neal" chorus is perhaps the most pasted-on, mainstream-sounding bullshit to ever appear on a Wu album. It's an abomination. It reminds me of the scene in Wayne's World where Wayne and Garth show up to find their show has been co-opted by a corporation, their opening theme song now sounding plastic and commercialized. While "Keep Watch" is one of the best tracks on the album, you need to lower the volume whenever Nathaniel's whiny chorus chimes in.
Which brings us to...
Shitty, Shitty Choruses (and Lack of Chemistry)
This album took almost two years to record. Wu-Tang Forever took something like two months. In a recent interview Rza was asked how long it would've taken him to do the album if this was the mid-90s, he said "four months." The reason it took so long is ostensibly the rift between Rza and Rae & Ghost, but it's also very apparent that most of the members of this nine-man crew aren't really friends anymore. They're grown men with families and commitments living their own lives, individually scattered around the country. From what we've heard about the recording process, the members were stopping by one or two at a time to record a verse here and there, then Rza had to piece it all together. That absence of chemistry is definitely evident on here. As Rza so perfectly described in a Rolling Stone interview, the Wu golden age grew because of a certain intangible quality arising from the artists all being together making music at the same time:
"Our first album sounded so beautiful because, even though I wasn't on "C.R.E.A.M." and Ghost wasn't on "C.R.E.A.M.," we was there when "C.R.E.A.M." was made. It's the capture of time and space; it's the capture of energy."It seems Rza tried to make up for this lack of cohesiveness by crafting songs based around one concept. So we've got "Felt" with each emcee weaving the word "felt" into each bar, "Mistaken Identity" where they all tell wrongful arrest stories, "Preacher's Daughter" is self explanatory, and "Never Let Go" is an example of this technique going too far, where the artists sound disinterested and like they aren't fully behind the concept.
The most glaring result of the lack of chemistry is evident in the choruses. A Better Tomorrow is a full-length exhibit of horrendous choruses. Most of them are either done by Rza himself or some anonymous singers. The results are often disastrous. Rza's chorus on "Preacher's Daughter" is painful to listen to. Critics have widely excoriated the Disney-sounding chorus on "Miracle" (which is otherwise a fantastic song). Rza's barking hook on "Hold the Heater" comes across as formulaic, a forced attempt at making Wu-Tang sound rough which is an extremely awkward arrangement. "Felt" and "Never Let Go" feature average background-vocalist types stepping in to deliver lengthy closing choruses. I imagine if this was truly a group effort there would have been more creative exploration going on, more experimentation with writing choruses (or even just ditching hooks altogether). One of the only tracks where someone other than Rza or an R&B random sings the chorus is "Mistaken Identity" with various members (including Streetlife) chiming in with lines and it actually works well.
To harp so much on the hooks perhaps seems like nitpicking, but the lackluster choruses tend to ruin almost every track. My main problem with it is this: A Better Tomorrow might be the last Wu-Tang album ever. Shouldn't each moment on the album represent valuable mic time then? Why stuff it up with so many anonymous (and often annoying) voices who've never contributed anything to Wu's musical legacy? You've got not only a stable of 9 creative minds to work with but even a small army of ancillary members like Killah Priest, Streetlife, Killarmy, Sunz of Man, etc. Wu-Tang fans crave lyrics, emceeing, that's what we've been taught to appreciate. Why not fill up the album with as much of the Wu camp's wealth of lyricism as possible? Instead, with weak production and cloying choruses, A Better Tomorrow simply ends up sounding like shitty crossover hip hop.