Being the unrelenting critic that I am, if artists cared for my opinion then it would likely disincentivize the older ones. Because I’m always going to compare their new music to their old music, which is likely really good, otherwise why would they still be relevant in hip-hop? I don’t expect the new to be exactly the same or better than the old, but I do want it to be as compelling. So here we are with the new Wu-Tang album, A Better Tomorrow. After a classic debut, multiple decent-to-great group follow-ups, 98 core member solo albums, 306 Wu-affiliates, and 6 billion other albums and mixtapes and compilations, they chose to bring everyone together one more time to make another album, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that debut album.
But before we get into this album, let’s get into that one for a second. Enter the 36 Chambers. 1993. I can’t front like I know firsthand how it changed the face of hip-hop. I’m too young to be a historian of that era, and many others who are better-equipped to do so have spoken and written about it. But it changed me. 36 Chambers was my introduction to raw hip-hop. The dirty soul samples and violent yet witty lyrics captivated me. It shaped a lot of my tastes. No other Wu-Tang album could compare to it, simply due to its impact upon me . Writing with only that context would make for a very short, and probably unfair, review of 36 Chamber‘s inevitably weaker offspring, A Better Tomorrow. Instead I’ll try to do a little better.
The problem with A Better Tomorrow is that it’s a sequel to a movie that already has too many damn sequels. Throughout the Wu’s 20-plus year career, the quality of their group albums has steadily declined after that astronomical debut. I personally would have been quite happy had they stopped after parts 2 and 3, but of course no one listened to me!
It’s my opinion that hip-hop groups (and maybe music groups in general?) are destined to eventually fail. After a group finds great success and/or has internal struggles, the best they can usually hope for is quitting before their output turns to forcing out deuces that tarnish their legacy. So I’m glad that Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest ended when they did. And I’m not sure I want to ever see them back together. That magical chemistry of their pasts is likely gone, forever stifled by egos and time spent growing apart. The Wu took a somewhat different path to a similar conclusion. Because they are essentially a Rza-manufactured collective of independent artists, solo work has always been an accepted part of their output. This is opposed to other groups where the first solo album signalled an impending end to the group. So instead of continually releasing increasingly bad group projects, then eventually breaking up, they did solo work in the many years in between group albums. Periodically, they’d come back together for group albums, each one worse than the last,* likely for the reasons cited above for why any group breaks up. The Wu had beef after beef, including many centered around Rza, their business and creative leader. These likely made creating an album together hard, as did Rza’s creative vision, based on his ever-expanding musical tastes, and some members’ egos fueled by fame outside of the group and underground hip-hop.
So A Better Tomorrow is the album that should not have happened, because some of those before it should not have happened. So I knew what to expect before ever hearing any of it, and especially after the Raekwon vs. Rza war of words. Raekwon, at one point, even said the beats were wack. Assuming that he was describing the same beats that made it onto the final album, I’d say he was about half right. A lot of the beats are either dead and lacking any energy, or they don’t sound like anything I want to hear Wu-Tang on. Felt’s listless track is one of the former, while 40th Street Black‘s fast blaxploitation style is definitely the latter.
Preacher’s Daughter is another perplexing failure, one which makes no sense to me. Its acoustic guitar-based beat, lazily sung hook that jacks the most memorable line from the song Son of a Preacher Man, and unconnected verses about lost women are perfect evidence that Wu-Tang Clan has collectively lost its way. These cannot be the same guys who made C.R.E.A.M. and Triumph!
Not that everything is terrible. More than a few songs reach toward classic Wu sounds and achieve similar, if still lower heights. Nothing approaches Enter the 36‘s sound and energy levels, but some songs such as Ron O’Neal and Ruckus in B Minor could easily have been on the best of the subsequent albums.
Beginning with an uncredited singer repeatedly lamenting, “wanna go home, to see my wife and kids”, Mistaken Identity is easily my favorite song of A Better Tomorrow, and I’d argue it’s the best the Wu has made for many years. Each rapper has a tale of being wrongfully accused of a crime, and Rza’s beat, grounded by a sad yet angry electric guitar, changes something like eight times to highlight each section of the song. If the Clan insists on making new songs, this is what I want them to be! It updates the old sound instead of turning completely away from it, and the lyrics stick to the street foundation of Wu-Tang without being disconnected high-level overviews of gangsta life or unbelievable tough talk from middle-aged men who most likely left that life behind ages ago.
Earlier I said that these aren’t the same guys as on their debut. I don’t expect that, and it’d be foolish to want it. I don’t envy the position of anyone trying to make music with expectations based on 20 years of sometimes classic output. As successful rappers age, they have to find a way to reconcile their (usually) criminal early lifestyle and/or music with the fact that they now often are family men who are attempting to build legal businesses. What does the gangsta rapper rap about when he’s on tour most of the year instead of selling crack? Many stick to their original criminal program, and some are better than many others at pulling this act off. We listeners accept that rappers usually, at best, know the life they talk but aren’t currently living it, despite their recorded claims to the contrary.
Wu-Tang have tried to mature both their sound and lyrics, and the results have wildly varied. Their two songs named A Better Tomorrow, one on this album and one on Wu-Tang Forever, conveniently display this variation. I’ve already explained my hate of the newer song’s blatant jacking of a sample that’s much too hopeful for hip-hop and especially Wu-Tang, and its lyrics filled with platitudes, whereas the old song was a criticism of some negative parts of ghetto life with an appropriately somber instrumental. What I’m noting is that both are attempts to deal with societal problems as opposed to being composed of the criminal boasts that might have appeared on 36 Chambers, but they turned out wildly different.
That is the story of Wu-Tang Clan’s career, and of A Better Tomorrow, the album. I can’t deny them their place in hip-hop history, and never would I want to, but inconsistency like that shown on this album has tarnished their legacy over and over. If I had to guess at a reason for this, I’d say that Rza’s production and musical direction has drifted too far away from the tastes of other members, drawing uninspired verses from them that lack the fire of the earlier music. A Better Tomorrow doesn’t demolish the Wu’s legacy, but it definitely left some dents. Diehard fans may be able to excuse the missteps by appreciating the simple fact that we have a new Wu-Tang album that isn’t altogether terrible, but I can’t be so positive. I hate to see one of my favorite groups fight with each other and commemorate a great album with such a mediocre one. So maybe it’d be better if A Better Tomorrow didn’t exist at all?
- Mistaken Identity
- Keep Watch
- Ron O’Neal
*Except, I’d argue that The W is overall better than Wu-Tang Forever. Forever was bloated beyond measure.