My experience with family reunions was my nuclear family traveling to some city (usually in the south) for a weekend, to “fellowship” with hundreds of other people who happen to share some great-great-great-great-ancestor with us. This was our attempt to fight the family-destroying legacy of slavery by establishing an extended family much wider than cousins, aunts, and uncles we saw at Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house. Maybe I was too young to understand such a noble goal, and how to meet it, but for me, these events were mostly exercises in awkwardness and futility. Each one meant meeting strangers who I was supposed to build a connection with, using fumbling small talkish attempts to “get to know them”, but always remembering that Sunday would come and we’d head home to never think about each other again. Exchanged addresses forgotten without one letter sent, we’d return to our normal lives, until the next event 2-4 years later, where we’d repeat the cycle with a new set of people because no one ever attends every reunion. I’m sure these reunions still happen, but now that I make my own travel decisions, I can’t say I’ve been interested in attending one lately. It feels so artificial, and forced, that I haven’t been interested in finding a good reason to attend.
Cue A Better Tomorrow.
Why does this album exist? Why did these 10 emcees ( RIP ODB) force it into existence? Ostensibly, because the 20th anniversary of 36 Chambers just happened. My guess is that their reasons were similar to why I have a nagging guilt about not going to a family reunion in over a decade. Because I/they should. Possibly the emptiest motivation of them all. Perform a task, while recognizing the likely negative or bleh outcome, because it’s expected of you. Force yourself into a situation with other people you don’t really have a relationship with, on the strength of something in the past that should but fails to tie you all together. Smile in pictures, shake some hands, but count the minutes until it’s over and you can get back to your regular life.
I don’t know that that was everyone’s experience making A Better Tomorrow, but listening to it, I think it’s a strong possibility. On the album, Wu-Tang sounds like a wayward family, a diaspora, returned home for some artificial reason, but not reconnected as hoped and planned. Too much happened in between albums. Too much happened during the making of this one.
I’ve already documented my displeasure with A Better Tomorrow. It wasn’t terrible, at all, but for a group that means so much to me, it was terrible to see them fall so far. After accepting them as over, this glimpse at what could still be (Mistaken Identity), along with a long, forced stare at what, instead, usually is (Preacher’s Daughter), is extremely disappointing.
Wu-Tang Reunion, the last song on A Better Tomorrow, sums up this album, and my feelings, perfectly. Like A Better Tomorrow (the song), there’s a classic sample (The O’Jays’ Family Reunion) that’s easy to misuse. It works ok, but the misstep is using it for a Wu-Tang song. It’s too soft and happy to match these emcees, and as expected the product is awkward. Even with a dope drum loop, it’s just weird. Masta Killa, Method Man, and Ghostface spit somewhat happy verses about actual family reunions (smaller scale than those I described above), Wu-Tang coming back together, and reminiscing over Old Dirty Bastard (respectively). In between the verses, Eddie Levert croons by way of the sample, and Rza does a toast to Wu-Tang at the end. It’s a very cute sentiment, and an ok song, but it’s not what we came here for: the real Wu-Tang sound, updated for today. Something that sounds like the grimy 90s plus finely aged wisdom. Without their hunger, witty lyrics, and requisite dirt (no pun intended), the song feels very wrong.
The idea of a Wu-Tang reunion will probably always be alluring, but this song and its album prove that some dreams are, sadly, better left unimplemented. Their solo albums are still generally good. But I’d rather remember Wu-Tang as they were than be reminded of what they no longer are, a family.