Obligation isn’t a good motivator when it comes to making art. On some occasions, it serves as an extra bit of oxygen to fuel the fire. But obligation doesn’t translate into drive, no matter how noble it is. That’s what’s been guiding A Better Tomorrow through the turmoil and toward its quiet release: This is what the fans want — no, this is what the fans deserve.
Obligation doesn’t cover over discontent, though, even in live performances. The Wu-Tang Clan performed at The Source360 concert at Barclays Center last summer, and at first it was thrilling. No one could resist Ghostface Killah’s murderous force as he delivered the opening bars to “Bring Da Ruckus” or the joy of watching Method Man march across the stage for “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man”. But you do realize in the minutes following the performance that this was exciting only because this is the Wu-Tang. Other than busting open the show with that verse, Ghostface looked noticeably distant from everyone except Raekwon. U-God and GZA looked their age while they stiffly awaited their cues. RZA and Meth were the only two on that high energy level the entire night.
But, again, these problems are permissible when you’re experiencing the legendary Wu-Tang in person. That inherent power doesn’t translate when listening on record back at home. To get that power, it’d take mixing the record properly so it doesn’t sound like at least two verses were carelessly emailed in. It’d require dropping the feckless verses that make the cut here simply because getting them at all was a battle. The cracks that formed during their ill-fated 1997 Summer Jam performance are now full-blown fissures. The blues skies on the cover are a façade; the cameraman is standing on wreckage.
And bless RZA for trying. He was clearly the brain and emotional trust behind this project — as he’s usually been. But his overarching theme of unity is a problematic one, especially with how shoddy his own creative compass is. A Better Tomorrow follows 8 Diagrams’ more expansive production and ends up with the same impact — which is to say not very much. RZA’s ambitions meet success solely in the brass of album-opening “Ruckus in B Minor”, as the spaghetti Western guitars mellifluously make their way to backwards psychedelia. The majority of the album’s production — contributions from Adrian Younge, 4th Disciple, and Mathematics — are misses built on repetition and dissonant genre-bending. Sometimes they just run too long, as if only to exist subservient to the Clan’s barely there verses, like the Scooby Doo-ish creak in “Pioneer the Frontier” and blaxploitative “Crushed Egos”. Sometimes they’re just bad. When you’re listening to this on Spotify and come across what sounds like a holiday ad, it isn’t: It’s the weakly conceived “Miracle”. Meanwhile, “Wu-Tang Reunion” proves there is such a thing as too soulful.
The verses don’t look bad on paper — save for bricks like Method Man’s album-opening hook (“Youngin’ I could see your drawers pull your pants up”), U-God’s corny jail quip on “Never Let Go” (“When I’m in jail, never let go of the soap”), or Inspectah Deck’s hyperbole on “Pioneer the Frontier” (“I’m hot as Hell’s Kitchen with the oven on”) — but they’re just so haphazardly strung together that the songs become chores. Combined with the lack of enthusiasm, the verses come across as disembodied voices in RZA’s soulful gobbledygook, and the bland hooks and crescendos act as stopgaps. It comes off especially bad in “Mistaken Identity” and “Preacher’s Daughter”. For the former, the urgency is the equivalent of a high-schooler given a topic for a five-page essay and he says fuck it because it’s a class requirement. In the latter, it’s all too clear that these are 40-year-old men lusting over preachers’ daughters.
But, while the goodwill is obfuscated by a lack of direction, A Better Tomorrow is made further futile because of the misinformed goal of simply giving the fans another Wu-Tang album. The world doesn’t need another one; even fans know the Clan aren’t and may never be as unified as they were during the ‘90s. The nine are far removed from the world domination mission laid out on 36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Forever — at least for Raekwon, it’s about business. On “Never Let Go”, Method Man pledges that “players retire but they never let go of the team.” It’s meant to galvanize, but it’s more of a curmudgeonly sentiment that guides this non-canonical release.
Essential Track: “Ruckus in B Minor”