I want to believe that the Wu-Tang Clan are as united as A Better Tomorrow would have us all believe. Fact of the matter is that they’re far from it. The rift instigator has almost always been Raekwon, who has curmudgeonly cried mediocre at pretty much everything the RZA has done since 2007’s psychedelic return album 8 Diagrams.
It’s always going to be difficult to take an album from any rap group, let alone one as seminal as Wu-Tang, seriously when you know there isn’t that same chemistry, when they’re not the same hungry young rappers clawing their way out of Staten Island together. I’ll give it a try though, in-fighting and middle age aside, if only because Fleetwood Mac once made Rumours.
ODB bookends Ruckus In B Minor, the standout track, problematic in that it’s the very first track however. Inspectah Deck makes a Big Bang Theory reference to end his traditional album-opening verse and it’s painfully uncool but, that aside, the album kicks off with a deliciously old-school twist.
Felt features familiar spaghetti Western guitars laid over a minimalistic beat, pretty stock standard Wu, sure, but it’s a noticeable drop-off in quality and that uncomfortable sense of ‘is anyone even trying on this album?’ starts to pervade. Masta Killa asks us if we remember the first time we heard Protect Ya Neck but it fails to energise the listener with nostalgia and instead provides kind of a sad juxtaposition between eras.
40th Street Black/We Will Fight sounds like a throwback Afrika Bambaataa beat over a college fight song. I appreciate the old-school flavour once again but Cappadonna’s flow is so off the beat here it’s not funny and RZA’s end verse features badass lines about the swordsmen of Wu-Tang but it’s intermingled with things like his assertion that he can tell a woman would like to engage in a threesome based entirely on the bra she is wearing. It’s that gleeful, scatterbrained Wu-Tang we know and used to love, only frustratingly dumbed down.
Mistaken Identity features more of the spaghetti Western guitars, Method Man providing the line of the song (and a solid life hack) in ‘when life take a piss in yo’ bed, you flip the mattress’. The chorus features the line ‘check my ID, Wu-Tang that’s the legacy’, it doesn’t come across as the boast it’s intended to be, you really only can identify Wu-Tang as a legacy act at this point.
Despite the rift, Raekwon and RZA team up for Crushed Egos, almost every line Raekwon spits wonderfully cryptic and evocative, ‘man the goats launchin’ charge cards from Africa/catch me in the hookah lodge’ utter nonsense but still delivered with surprising conviction from a man who once called RZA a hip-hop hippie.
Keep Watch was the first single off the album, a mid-90s throwback (Method Man shouts out to B.I.G. and Lil Cease in the opening verse) and one of the highlights of the album. Not an off verse here (perhaps a coincidence that RZA is nowhere to be seen) and GZA saves the best for last, rapping on another astral plane about solar clouds and symmetry. Beautiful.
It’s a swift burning comet though, Miracle immediately follows and is by far the lowest point, a piano laden mess of a track. The honey-sweet chorus vocals sound like something ripped right off of a disgustingly sappy Disney movie soundtrack and it’s beyond godawful. It’s simpering, it’s schmaltzy, it’s fucking gross. Preacher’s Daughter won’t redeem anyone involved either, hamfistedly sampling Dusty Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man over a less-than-tasteful little ditty about defiling the female offspring of clergymen. The fatherly age of the Clan members rapping on this one makes it even more of a cringe-fest.
Pioneer The Frontier provides some recycled lyrics and an exhausted-sounding hook from RZA over first-person shooter menu music, U-God’s wonderfully unhinged verse the lone highlight here. Third single Ron O’Neal sees Ghostface popping in for a rare look and he doesn’t disappoint, opening with the line ‘I seen niggas sniff coke through a crazy straw’, though he closes with a line about ‘Spongebob niggas’ that’s head-scratchingly baffling. That’s the problem with a lot of the pop culture references throughout this album, they’re just not fresh enough, a reflection on either the groups’ complacence or their age or both.
Penultimate track Never Let Go opens with a vintage kung fu movie sample, before a few lines from Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and then launching into rapid fire verses from each member. It’s a much more coherent and genuine-sounding song from Wu, even if the lyrical content is largely a depressing ode about holding on to the past with a death grip from within the waning light of their present-day career.
Overall this is not a terrible album by any means, one of the better rap albums of 2014 (although that’s not saying much) in fact. Approach this as someone expecting absolute game-changing fire from the Shaolin Warriors and you will walk away bitter and disappointed (downright disgusted at Miracle). Approach it as someone knowing Wu-Tang are but a shadow of their former selves and running on the nostalgic fumes of an immortal legacy and you will find moments of individual brilliance scattered among relatively safe and non-polarising songs with the occasional cringer, not revolutionary but certainly far from unpleasant.
Perhaps they saved that fire that’s lacking here for their one-copy-only touring sideshow attraction Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. We’ll hopefully find out without having to pay an exorbitant price to prise it free from some underground stronghold in Morocco. For now though, just enjoy the good that’s on A Better Tomorrow and remember that the bad is a byproduct, one of natural causes that befall many of our childhood idols.