By Lisa Marklinger
Warner Bros. Records
Sitting back to articulate the adoration, admiration (and, let’s face it, addiction) of a group celebrating 20 years in the rap game without coming across as ineloquent or trite is an ambitious task. With six studio albums as a collective, countless accolades, solo works (upwards of 30), compilations (19), not to mention their Wu-Affiliates (a.k.a. Killa Beez and Wu Fam), the list of musical furnishings is mazy, to put it mildly. A person’s compulsion for Wu-Tang Clan could easily spread like a disease.
Every fan has a story: the sterling moment when they fell in love. Maybe you had a revelation to “A Better Tomorrow” while sitting freshly baked and cognitive on the floor of your hotboxed bathroom. Or perhaps you drove around with your friend in his mother’s Toyota Previa drinking Coke Slurpees (a dollop of Lime Crush on top, when available) studded with sour gummy candies, doing complete captain’s chair gangsta-leans with “Triumph” blasting on the player. It’s even totally believable that you were once an alabaster blonde girl drivin’ your hoopdie 80 km/h in a 50 zone, bumpin’ Wu-Tang, dressed like you woke up in a Dumpster. Whoever and wherever you were, and whatever laws you were breaking at the time, somehow you and The Wu became informally acquainted.
For many, that introduction came with their second full-length Forever (1997). The consummate double album was so profoundly belligerent, scientifically spiritual, self-reflective and socially aware that it still tops Billboard lists as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. Fast forward 17 years, three albums, and ample personal drama later, and we arrive at their first joint in seven years, A Better Tomorrow. Finally emerging as a souvenir to salute their range of triumphs, it undoubtedly suffers from a few afflictions.
Lost at this juncture are vital elements such as youth and disparity so prevalent in their early works. Back in the early ‘90s, one could imagine the collective huddled in a dilapidated Bronx apartment, spitting rhymes, smoking blunts, talking about street life, world politics, hardships, incarceration, peddling and cooking crack. They weren’t a gang; they were each other’s support group. When you come from nothing, everything is a bonus, and when listening to their debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993), you get a sense they began rapping to make better use of their time, stay off the streets and get outta the ‘hood. It was raw, primitive. It paved the way for Forever (1997), by which time several of the Clan had already begun to enjoy individual, commercial success. The Wu-Tang Clan never cared about being mainstream as a congregation: what they did want was to become as profitable as possible through individual stardom.
Case in point: Old Dirty Bastard (R.I.P) featured in the Bad Boy remix of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” in ‘95. Meanwhile, over at Def Jam, Method Man released Tical (mainly a RZA production) in ‘94, winning him a Grammy the following year. Raekwon’s joint Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995), and the more empirical album Liquid Swords (1995) from the GZA are, to date, two of Wu-Tang’s most compelling and celebrated solo projects. Both focused on a variety of inner-city transgressions and presented an ominous, graphic milieu, adding to their notoriety as artistic wizards. An institution all his own, the RZA has cultivated a replete, decorative index of movie scores, productions, acting roles and a lengthy discography. For A Better Tomorrow, amid a public dispute with Raekwon over the creative direction of the album, RZA glommed onto control over production, and according to some, may be comprised more logically than it is about a Clan of thugs out “the slums of Shaolin” making their “G’off drug loot” and “pullin’ out gats for fun.”
Wu-Tang Clan is still, for the most part, acerbic without provocation and distinctly more straightforward than their experimental last album 8 Diagrams (2007). Having branched off into various quarters of the U.S, over the course of two decades passing, it’s unsurprising that A Better Tomorrow has been in the works since mid-2011. With the progression from underground to such gigantic status (they’re accredited with an entire lexicon of slang and popularizing a new brand in the ‘Manifesto Rap’ genre) it would be foolish to totally intuit this sixth (and plausibly final) offering as immaculate. “Crushed Egos” offers the most authentic illustration of the Wu brand legacy: snare march intro, continuing throughout; kung-fu dialogue; eerie funeral death organ chords and riffs in the background, and rapping menacingly in battle style. Oddly, it’s also the shortest track on the album, and seems more like a potent interlude than a full-length fight-song à la “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit” (36 Chambers, 1993). Their first single “Keep Watch” (released in March 2014) featuring new protégé Nathaniel singing hooks in R&B flavor is the most mainstream sounding of the lineup. Immediately following is “Miracle,” which would be a brilliant composition if not for the random and distracting voice-breaks. “If a miracle/could save us from/the travesty/that we’ve become/if a million sons/could stand as one/we will overcome…” BARF. It’s reminiscent of “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin and, without question, unquestionably ruins the gloomy lyrics and cinematic, orchestral beauty of the song. Given some thought though, the vision was likely intended as literal discord: syrupy vs. gamey, like pan-seared venison with blueberry confit. Luckily, it’s an anomaly.
Spinning hip hop into a refreshing new orbit is “Preacher’s Daughter,” a re-write of the Dusty Springfield classic “Son of a Preacher Man,” showcasing a crafty Method Man at the start and a melodic mix of horns and funk acoustic guitar from RZA that reveals another unique layer of his dexterity as a sound engineer. The drug tales of Raekwon, the slick flow of Inspectah Deck, GZA’s scarce (though still verbose) lyrical wizardry, colourful vignettes from Ghostface and a cameo from ODB make it apparent that they’ve matured as craftsmen and are serene in their current lives.
Altogether, A Better Tomorrow makes several things clear. Wu-Tang has certainly acquired knowledge of substance, loyalty, pride, convictions, regrets, peace and happiness. They’re continually moving forward and strive to accomplish the impossible on their own terms, in their context of belief. “A Better Tomorrow” is truly “Felt” through the rhymes and rhythms contained within this record, despite its infrequent musical shortcomings.A Better Tomorrow, Wu-Tang Clan