A year later, I’m still trying to figure out where I’m at with A Better Tomorrow. The 2014 Wu comeback album was overshadowed by controversy, criticism, infighting, and general fukkery. RZA claimed to have personally financed the sessions at half million dollar loss. There was only limited participation among the other members. Raekwon – the quiet key to Wu album energy – refused to participate until a last hour reconciliation. Ghost and GZA appear sporadically, and surprisingly ineffectually. Method Man ‘promoted’ it with a subtle dig, posting “RZA’s album” to his instagram. The only members who showed up for press shoots were peripheral guys like U-God and Cappadonna. Fans were divided between apathy and disgust. And then there was the curious announcement of another secret double album that would only be made available to a single investor at a minimum bid of $5 million dollars. Only one copy of that album exists, and at this point it seems like it will never be heard. More on that later.
So what about the music itself? Mr Mef was right: A Better Tomorrow is RZA’s album. Who else could it be? All the best Wu group and solo albums are RZA’s albums, even beyond the early classics to his involvement with Ghost’s Supreme Clientele and Rae’s Cuban Linx II. This time, his vision called for a reinvention of the sound, with a full band with scored instrumentation. This is actually on trend with the current wave of full band producers like Adrian Younge and Sour Soul. (And of course we know the roots of that whole style.) But it doesn’t really work on A Better Tomorrow – the odd tempos and beat switches don’t lend themselves to flows, and some of the stylistic decisions are downright disastrous. The album reminds me of Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-in-Hour Mess-age, a similarly flawed experiment that employed a backing band instead of sample based beats. Make no mistake – A Better Tomorrow is not some awful rap/rock hybrid of the sort that clogged airwaves in the early 2000s. Its sound is inventive, ambitious, often very Wu-like. But it just doesn’t quite work.
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36 Chambers is the original classic, Wu-Tang Forever the masterpiece, The W the weird dark banger, Iron Flag the uneven compilation, 8 Diagrams the flawed yet underrated comeback. A Better Tomorrow is the worst by a wide margin. But this is the Beatles of hip hop we’re talking about, so everything’s relative. RZA has always been an experimental producer. He takes risks, follows his instincts, leaves in mistakes. This is what gives his work such a bizarre energy. Occasionally he stumbles – witness his hot mess of a solo debut Bobby Digital In Stereo. Since then he’s been wildly inconsistent, from occasionally genius to embarrassingly bad. But when he’s invested his stuff is always interesting. Some fans still haven’t warmed up to the 2007’s 8 Diagrams, but that album has a dark eccentricity that somehow coalesces despite the disparate elements. The “all in together” vibe of the early albums is gone, will never return. But the trick of incorporating in-band tensions and disagreements into the album vibe was achieved on 8 Diagrams. That is a Wu album of its time, reflecting the end of the Bush era with an appropriately weary fatality. A Better Tomorrow tries to gloss over the recent public disagreements with a transparent attempt at brotherhood – the obvious example is “Wu-Tang Reunion,” which is actually built on a disappointing collection of mailed in verses.
Bad things first: A Better Tomorrow contains two of the worst songs in the Wu canon. (That short list will always bottom out with the crime against humanity that was U-God’s sex rap “Black Shampoo” from Wu-Tang Forever.) “Miracle” actually ruins a good 4th Disciple beat with some weak R&B crooning. And let’s be clear that the singing isn’t even just routinely bad R&B, but almost like Disney soundtrack material. I picture the little bear cub returning to his family after his adventures – cue credits, buy merchandise. “It’s a miracle!” No, it isn’t. It stinks. The other infuriating one to me is “We Will Fight,” which employs a marching band for the chorus. I’m not against a marching band on a Wu album in theory, but this really sounds like halftime college football type stuff. Like Brent Musberger could probably dig it. And Brent Musberger has no business digging anything on a Wu-Tang album, all due respect.
Elsewhere the beats are just spotty. “Keep Watch” sounds like a mediocre Swarm compilation track made even worse with another sung chorus. (Some guy called Nathaniel sings all the hooks and he makes Tekitha and Blue Raspberry look competent by comparison.) “Preacher’s Daughter” recalls the same old “Son Of A Preacherman” song that Cypress Hill already flipped twenty years ago. Some of the beats are just nondescript, straight up 4/4 grooves that don’t resonate or respond to the flows. The beat changes are arbitrary and senseless, so that most songs are comprised of a few strong elements that drift into aimless mediocrity.
Two highlights: “Pioneer The Frontier” is an 8 Diagrams style beat, which sounds even better in the context of some of the nonsense on this album. “Necklace” is a stone classic – a creepy soundscape reminiscent of The W era. Brother, I think that necklace is causing you too much trouble. “Felt” is a dope concept with two different beats intertwined. And the title track is cut from the uplifting Wu power ballad formula of “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Can It Be So Simple,” “All I Got Is You,” “Stick Me 4 My Riches,” etc. The overall Wu message has always been positive, universal – Protons Electrons Always Cause Explosions. The song concepts make that more explicit, though to the point of almost being too obvious.
We can’t blame this all on the RZA. He clearly envisioned a more mature vibe for this album, but the lyrics don’t really meet that high mark. On the first verse of the whole album, Inspectah Deck goes into an awful bit naming TV shows: “Son of anarchy/I be breaking bad…Dancing with the stars/Americans idol me/The mentalist with the big bang theory.” The fuck is this, TV Guide? It’s not even clever on some kind of sub-GZA level. There’s lots of Cappadonna on this album too. Enough said? Cappadonna has always stunk. There’s a myth that Cappadonna once dropped a halfway decent verse in his clumsy career. Don’t believe the hype – the verse wasn’t even that good, it was just long. I’ll personally never forgive Cappa for rapping off beat on “Buck 50” on Supreme Clientele, not to mention the shitty-even-by-Cappa-standards bars (“Duncan Hines/didn’t know Betty Crocker had the two nines”). He didn’t ruin that classic but he tried. So even at his best Cappa is just tolerable. He doesn’t actively ruin any songs on here, so I suppose that equals a solid performance for Mr Cab Driver.
Method Man is by far the star lyrically. But even some of his stuff gets formulaic at times. Still I’ll take autopilot Meth if we get occasional glimpses of his godlike 97 flow. (His work on Wu-Tang Forever is as deep and dope as anything in hip hop. Do the knowledge.) Ghost isn’t too prominent here, and though there has been some decline he’s still Ghostface. His recent solo work has not been wholly successful, but it’s interesting, adventurous stuff. He has been by far the most successful solo artist of the Wu but he falls back a bit here, taking his smaller role of crazy charistmatic street thug. It’s emblematic of the overall problem – none of the guys seem invested in these songs or their performances. Masta Killa adds the most besides Meth, and he gets off the best line of the album (“Old time religion will not bring us satisfaction without action/Now who can disagree with me?”). Overall, A Better Tomorrow gives the lesser memebers a more prominent platform but this is only due to the lack of investment by the top-tier.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
But there is another…
By now most fans are aware of the existence of this secret double album that was the subject of lots of media attention last spring. The whole idea seems utterly preposterous – only one copy sold to a single buyer, with the provision that it cannot be sold for 88 years. Apparently there was some talk that the album would be toured to museums before that was nixed, and RZA promoted all this nonsense with his usual self-importance. The official line is that the album is a double disc of classic Wu sound and performances, even including Ol’ Dirty and Cher (?). The reality is different – the album was produced and overseen by Wu third-stringer Cilvaringz. The rapper/producer was an overzealous fan who ingratiated himself into RZA’s inner circle. He released a solo album with the Wu logo in 2007. That album is a fascimile of obvious Wu cliches, with Cilva cloaking his mediocre raps in militant Muslim rhetoric, kung fu samples, and a truly ill-considered Michael Jackson tribute. The album is the definition of recycle bin rap, given some attention on rap blogs and then quickly forgotten. Meanwhile, he’s been working on his real “masterpiece,” a full Wu compilation that supposedly harks back to the glory days. Realizing that a traditional release would probably end up as fleeting as his solo, Cilvaringz and co hit upon the idea of promoting the album as a one of a kind “work of art.” RZA’s participation is in name only, lending his artistic cache to the project. All of this is to say – Wu fans, don’t be discouraged by the odd limbo in which this project currently resides. Whether or not it will actually be sold – so far there has still not been a bidder, despite some failed Kickstarters – or we will ever get to hear it, chances are we’re not missing much.
Otherwise Wu fans can turn toward two other unlikely sourcs. Detroit’s Bronze Nazerth is the Wu element with the most original character to his sound. His solo albums and mixtapes have incorporated the Wu style with his own vision. And don’t overlook mixtape DJ J-Love – he may be a goofy, fat white guy with an odd propensity for dropping n-bombs, but he’s the real deal. His Return of the Swarm mixtape run collects the best of the 2000 Wu solo work, which is surprisingly strong and vital in those small doses. I still bump those like lost Wu albums, all far better than A Better Tomorrow. Still, given the controversy and response to this album, we may not get another Wu group album for some time, if ever.