I am a big fan of Wu Tang Clan, so I feel obligated to share some thoughts about the recently released “A Better Tomorrow”, their sixth full length album, despite my break from ausomeawestin.
A Better Tomorrow is a pretty fun hip-hop record that draws inspiration from the cinematic aspects of Wu Tang Forever, even more practiced in this regard due to RZA’s extensive experience scoring Taratino’s, Jarmusch’s and his own films, as well as the yearning for justice in the ghetto that set Forever apart from their debut, enter the 36 chambers (though 36 chambers was never bested). It only makes sense then that the album title comes from a stirring track on Forever. Still, RZA’s practiced hand at composition, developed in movie scores and Wu Tang EPs Legendary Weapons and Wu Tang Chamber Music shows a continuation of the themes explored in those ventures, and so the production stands out from past Wu Tang LPs. The productions on this album are, on the whole, more complex, featuring live bands, unlike past LPs but like the more recent EPs, and featuring more interesting chord progressions and rhythms than seen on even the more recent EPs.
The phenomenally funky yet psychedelic “Mistaken Identity” is representative of this, showing the new compositional talents of RZA, and is easily one of the best hip-hop productions heard in recent years. Unfortunately, this beat doesn’t lend itself well to the rhyming talents of the emcees of the Wu, as the ear struggles to take in the complex rhythms of the beat and the flows of the likes of Method Man, a rapper who relishes playing with the sounds of words using his keen sense for theatrical rhythms and delivery. Too much is going on, with even more steady flowing emcees such as Masta Killa and U-God, normally the weakest links of the wu, but here in better form overall, struggling to find their voice in the music. One wonders if turning the emcees up in the mix would improve things.
The same holds true for the opening track “Ruckus in B Minor”, which, despite the reference to the opening minimalistic track of their debut, features a fascinating theatrical beat, with a stomping pulse and waves of ascending and descending synth organ lines, with jaggedly pronounced rhythms that the emcees seem to fight to establish themselves over. It’s assuredly an amazing composition, with constant alterations to the beat that draw the ear of the listener. In the end the title of the track betrays the fact that RZA intends for the attention to be on the instruments, and not the emcees. Still, GZA the Genius successfully plays with the theatrical breakdown of the beat during his verse and the eventual buildup to create an atmosphere of wonder at the mysteries of deep space. Thus, like other members in the past, GZA uses the group album to garner anticipation for his upcoming science album Dark Matter, like we weren’t excited already.
“Felt” features a beat that could be straight off of Forever which features minor chord arpeggios on an acoustic guitar over break-beat drums and a pulsing (read: vamping on one note) bass line and silhouette-like falsetto soul fragments that drift through the air. By contrast, “40th street black/we will fight” could be a B-side from Wu’s fourth LP, the lackluster Iron Flag, where RZA continued working with soul and R&B as his sample materials but rejected the lo-fi feel he so masterfully coaxed into haunting productions on Raekwon’s indispensable “solo” effort “Only Built for Cuban Linx” and Ghostface Killah’s “Iron Man”. Nevertheless, the syncopated rhythms of the beat allow the rappers to assert themselves, though no emcee turns in a particularly memorable verse, aside from GZA. “Hold the Heater” continues the general soul-influenced sentiment of “40th street black”, which opens with a solid verse from frequent guest Cappadonna, and features another thoughtful verse from the GZA, before closing out with a decent verse from Method Man.
“Crushed Egos” is an important track and one that is an album highlight. For some background, Raekwon and RZA had a bit of a falling out over the direction RZA’s productions had taken, with Raekwon wanting to stay true to the gritty, bass-heavy productions of their early years, while RZA expanded his sonic palette and embraced his soundtrack influences. There was some question as to whether Rae would be on any future wu albums, and whether any album without Rae, a pioneer of Mafioso and hardcore hip-hop, would be a wu tang album. That the two made amends is interesting, but it’s all the more interesting that the solo-feature of the album is a Rae track that features a beat markedly of RZA’s new cinematic style, and not of the kind Rae would seem to prefer, though they are on the album. All of this makes the track more outstanding, because Rae turns in some great verses, in his cerebral, flowing style of unique poetic imagery through impenetrable and indecipherable slang. RZA’s production is stirringly immediate in its thinness, yet menacing in the smoky, smoldering tones, that remind one of the evils of the west – the music would feature well in a Tarantino picture.
“Keep Watch” is another track in the mold of the Iron Flag style, with a beat that heavily features a sample of a soul vocal line and a hook with a male R&B vocalist. Method Man has his best verse of the album, but again GZA steals the show with an inspired verse about scientific discovery and brotherhood. “Miracle” is cheesy and corny, due to overuse of R&B vocals and an unfortunately gimmicky string arrangement, but the production during the verse is hauntingly dark, providing a perfect format for Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa to spin incredible tragedies of the ghetto, easily their best verses of the album — they seem inspired by the classic-wu sound of the beat, produced by 4th disciple. But the hook is so awful that even a killer verse by Rae can’t save the track. That, and then things get even worse when the track closes with a rock out sort of chorus with yell-singing. Painfully embarrassing for wu.
“Preacher’s daughter” features heavy sampling of “son of a preacher man”, and has a decent verse by Method man, but overall the song lacks inspiration. By contrast “Pioneer the Frontier” samples a breakdown from “Protect your Neck”, with an ominous horn line, reminiscent of good cuts from the third LP “The W”, and a decent verse by the RZA himself. The track also features scratching of an ol’ dirty bastard vocal, and is a nice touch for some nostalgia. The nostalgia continues with “Necklace”, another track reminiscent of the darker vibing grooves of the W. Rae and Ghostface Killah turn in great verses, with this, arguably, being Ghost’s best verse on the album. Then, GZA closes the track out with another killer verse, different from his verses about space and science but nonetheless inspired in his ruminations on religion and man. Self-referencing gets even more excessive, though with enjoyable results, on “Ron O’Neal”, which features the hook melody of “Ain’t Nothin ta fuck wit”, though modernized (some might say commercialized) with an R&B vocalist on the hook. Method man has a great verse, using equivocating jokes in his standard style, Ghost turns in one of his best of the album while RZA mediates on his past narcissism and drug use.
The album turns to new ground with the feel-good soul of “A Better Tomorrow”. It’s different for wu, but they pull it off, as the beat is too beautiful not to be moved by stirring verses by Method Man and Cappadonna. This optimism is tempered with the more tentative “Never Let Go”, featuring sampling from a MLK Jr. speech and live instrumentation of a funky horn-heavy production. The album closes with a soulful and whimsical piece on summertime in the projects, “Wu-tang reunion”.
Essentially, the album features three different styles: complex musical pieces with members of wu tang fighting to be heard, nostalgic pieces that reference past styles and sounds explored before, and optimistic pieces that sample soul heavily. Despite the battle between the emcees and the music, the most successful tracks on the album are the complex pieces. Yes, the wu members don’t quite shine on these verses, but all things considered, they don’t actually do much better on the more familiar beats, save for the nonetheless unbearable “Miracle”. On the whole the only members that seem inspired are RZA and GZA, and it’s in RZA’s music, not his lyrics that we see his drive. Some of the best lyricists in Wu, Method man and ghostface killah, perhaps inspectah deck, have largely unmemorable roles on the album, despite mef being one of the most featured emcees on the record. Lyrically, GZA is the star of the album, dropping several quote-worthy verses and profound observations. Despite concerns, Rae shows up and plays hard, delivering the verses to the album highlight “Crushed Egos”. In the end, after all the concern about Rae, it turns out that Ghostface killah was the true hold out, saving all his best verses and energy for his solo effort that dropped the same week, “36 seasons”.
It’s an unfocused effort, both in the overall lyricism of the members, and the sonic ground that RZA covers, despite some great productions by RZA and some great verses by GZA.
6.7 out of 10