Confession time: I’ve never listened to a whole Method Man album before this one. I’m sorry. You can draw and quarter me later. At the time when Wu was new, I was super young and my older brothers controlled the stereo and therefore all my music habits. They played Liquid Swordz and Ironman, so those are the solo albums that I’m most familiar with from that first round of releases. Might I suggest blaming them while I try in vain to find the time to keep this site going and fill my hip-hop history holes?
I do so love being right! Even when my prediction wasn’t at all a stretch, and in fact was quite obvious, it’s still nice for it to be correct. So guess how many levels my self-righteousness increased by when I saw that Raekwon called his crew’s weak last album, A Better Tomorrow, “too soft”, and blamed the weird musical direction on Rza.
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.
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.
Festivus is about having an alternative to Christmas. What I love about it is that instead of pretending that life is all great, it includes dealing with some harsh realities. Cuz I’m that type of morose motherfucker! So, assuming that everyone completed their feasting already, I put up a Festivus pole and now it’s time for the Airing of Grievances, where I tell the world how it has disappointed me this year. I’ll stick with music, but please believe there’s a lot more that I could say.
1. Kendrick Lamar – I
Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album is very highly anticipated because Good Kid M.A.A.D. City is one of the best albums that we’ve has heard in years! And even though I’m very worried that that album will remain a peak that he never reaches again, I still can’t wait to see him try. So I rabidly played his new single, I, hoping for some evidence that my worries were unfounded. Self-esteem was most definitely not on the short list of topics I expected him to attack, but I’m very pleased to see a mainstream rapper earnestly speaking on mental health concerns. It’s a worthy topic that needs to be addressed more often, I believe Kendrick when he talks about it, so this song again puts Kendrick at the forefront of nationally known rappers who actually have something real to say. For those things, I deserves much applause.
I wish Kendrick was MUCH better at execution!
First, let’s begin where my ears began: the beat. Sampling classic R&B is a very dangerous path to take. Jacking classic R&B might as well be classified as attempted suicide. Recognizable samples unfailingly provide a context that the new song either has to hijack or fight tooth and nail against. Kendrick’s I is terrible because it never became a song outside of the sample, The Isley Brothers Who’s That Lady. The sample is just too powerful to be jacked in so wholesale of a fashion, taking the most recognizable parts (the drums and guitar), for a song about anything other than the sample’s topic. So the sexy guitars from the original ode to a mystery woman create a cool vibe, yet here’s Kendrick talking (in such an annoyingly weird voice) and rapping (well, as usual) about loving himself despite his circumstances and external opinions. The mesh doesn’t work, because that tonal gap is too far for me to jump, so the song ends up feeling corny and sappy. I love the sentiment that went into I, but beyond that I have no interest in this final product.
2. Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
Actually, there’s a lot of parallels from this song to Kendrick’s latest. The next album is highly anticipated. The song is driven by one huge, classic R&B sample. It’s about issues worthy of discussion.
It also fails in execution. This time, the sample is Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ Wake up Everybody. Just as classic, and just as weird to be used to be used in a rap song. Again, the most recognizable parts of the sample are jacked. Not sampled and chopped, JACKED. But one key difference that makes this song semi-listenable is that the mood and topic match from the sample to the new song. Making a better world is the theme of both songs, and where the original focused on general problems and gave instructions, the Wu’s song spends a lot more time pointing out what’s wrong and is focused on issues directly affecting Black people, like police brutality.
While I’m happy to hear the thematic consistency, I just don’t like the Wu-Tang using this sample this way. It’s too hopeful for everyone’s verses of aimless, nuanceless complaints. Method Man’s verse is at least delivered well but it seems that no one else could muster the energy required for the track’s faster than average tempo. I’m all for Wu-Tang’s version of consciousness. And A Better Tomorrow is a much better mainstream attempt to deal with police brutality than Rick Ross and Game’s trash-ass song. So while I’m happy that the Wu-Tang Clan is back and making more music with a message, I hope that the rest of their album is much better at getting their messages across.
So concludes the first part of the Airing of Grievances. Coming next will be the lambasting of a recent album!
Props to Dave Tarantino for the heads up on this. This will be a real shot this time, as opposed to the 800 word essays I call “shots” just to ease away from my self-imposed requirements on how thorough a “review” should be. Also, I started this piece days ago but couldn’t finish before moving over the weekend and I’m just now settled enough to finish this. Another review should be coming in a day or two. Sorry for the content gap.
Czarface is one of those mash-ups that’s a backpack hip-hop head’s wet dream. One of the sharpest Wu-Tang spitters connected with the unfailing underground creators 7L and Esoteric, for an album consumed by East Coast sounds and complex lyricism. Totally consumed. TOTALLY! There’s nothing else here!