I’m gonna run this review slightly differently from how I write my reviews… been as I’m a Wu fan from the beginning, I don’t want to sound biased, but this album is two years in the making. Wu fans know the story, so I’m just gonna recap as concise as possible. Originally slated for a July 2013 release to mark the 20th Anniversary, every member was on board apart from one man: Chef Raekwon. Making guest appearances on everyone else’s album apart from the Wu… that bothered me a little bit. He even laced a freestyle over Drake’s Pound Cake instrumental. Usually the name Drake is blasphemy to Wu fans.
“I actually composed for orchestra. So it’s been a strange evolution. At first, I was interested in chopping sounds. then I got more into keyboards. Now I’m like, f**k that. Hip-Hop is gonna be able to be played in Carnegie Hall! But not with a DAT – with a hundred-piece orchestra and a turntable…” (RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual, 2005)
Rae and RZA had creative differences, very similar to the 8 Diagrams situation. After demands and ultimatums, Rae and RZA found common ground, and the album would be pushed back until December 2, 2014. Fans were willing to wait as long as Rae was fully on board. This is it people, the final album from the 10-man collective. Are they going out in a blaze of glory? Or are they gonna fall on their own Wu-Tang Sword?
Usually Clan albums begin with a classic Kung Fu sample…. this doesn’t… but RZA wants to make it clear that the clan can still bring the ruckus….Ruckus In B Minor that is… judging by this Rick Rubin produced banger, it was clear that the album needed a full clan track, even if it meant sampling past ODB vocals. It appeared as though the track was finished as well before Raekwon & Masta Killa came in and laced their verses, over a somewhat prototype version of the original beat. Then the clan wants you to feel how they ‘Felt’ when they reached their goals and personal tragedies…I do like how RZA brought back the element of letting beats ride out to the end…
Allah Mathematics also takes an upbeat militant approach with ’40th Street Black/We Will Fight’… The Clan suits up, trades in their swords for rifles, lyrically marching in the streets of hip hop. This is of course after they experience a Mistaken Identity…it’s great to see a returning StreetLife on the hook, shame he didn’t lace a verse though… it would have been even nicer if this was switched around – have this appear on the album before ‘…We Will Fight. To many cases of police grabbing the wrong man because his facial features are similar – you know how it goes, Black man, black hair, brown eyes….
Ever imagined what a more amplified, uptempo ruckus version of ‘Shadowboxing’ sounded like? Here, ‘Hold The Heater’. Cappadonna continues to fight his frenemies and tricknology, U-God is ready to go ‘Careful’ on people… GZA brings scientific wordplay, and Meth pays homage to Nas & Aretha: “I’m focused, tryna roll the reefer, let’s turn it up/Forget the cope, I’m tryna blow the speaker, that’s all he wrote/One verse could turn your soul to ether/It’s time you gave me my respects just like the old Aretha, Mr. Meth!”
In every Clan album, one member goes in for dolo while the clan stands back. This time it’s the turn of Raekwon in ‘Crushed Egos’, after all he deserves it. While RZA jumps in for the hook and bridge. Very interesting here, RZA’s hook has a double meaning: It’s taken from Clan In Da Front, at the same time, are the Chef & the Abbott crushing their own egos here?
‘Keep Watch’ is the first single from the album, yet that is not exactly true, I will explain later. Initially fans were divided, Producer Allah Mathematics defends his case: . “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “It feels good, but at the same time the version that they put out, that’s actually the wrong version. That’s not the mixed and mastered version, so I just hit ‘em so I am trying to get that up right now so everybody can get the real feel of it. Other than that, it feels great. It was just good to work with brothers again.” (Original source: XXL Mag, March 19, 2014)
Some fans may scoff at this, but the chorus in ‘Miracle’ is actually an act of genius. Yes it sounds like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but the clan’s storytelling here is moving… Inspectah Deck buts his tears on wax when he tells the story of burying his home girl after a case of crossfire, Masta Killa describes that what he’s seen in his life mirrors what is depicted in the Godfather saga, Raekwon flips Drake’s ‘Started from the Bottom’ and transforms it into a mafioso tale, & Ghostface cries for help for his people dying from Ebola and other diseases while the government hides the cures. When Ghost comes in however, 4th Disciple switches the dramatic beat up to epic proportions.
The Preacher claims to fear no man but God, but what about his daughter? Meth, Masta, Cappadonna & Ghost give different perspectives on the rebellious one over the Dusty Springfield sample ‘Son of a Preacher Man’.
Fans that thirst for that true Wu-Tang Shaolin sound are going to rejoice here… Pioneer The Frontier & Necklace fully embraces that. The former sees RZA reaching back for his DAT player, chopping up music from classic kung fu flicks, throwing classic ODB samples and looping it while the Clan’s pen hits tremendous. The latter has production credits from S. Bougard, not sure why that is but fans know it’s 4th Disciple behind the boards. Unlike those other artists showing off what jewellery they got, the clan have legitimacy and express what the chains they wear actually mean to them, anyone foolish to do or say something slick obviously don’t value their neck.
The Kung Fu sample in-between flows nicely into ‘Ron O Neal’, Here the clan pay tribute to the actor who featured in the film Super Fly, Masta Killa brings back one of his memorable lines from Ghostface Killah’s Assassination Day, while RZA demonstrates how he will wake up people with his digital bullet: “I hold the steel like Ron O’Neal/Super fly, do or die, Killah Hill, Brownsville/Never ran, never will, yes I can, yes I will/Put a dot upon your knot then I drill through your grill…”
I’m gonna call this ‘A Better Tomorrow Part II’… as this is a title track on Wu-Tang Forever and there is no explanation of why this track has the same name. Over the Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes ‘Wake Up Everybody’ track, RZA brings the 1975 classic to 2014 as Method Man starts it off in an inspiring Nas One Mic fashion, Masta Killa & Cappadonna continue to teach the seeds but it’s the Chef who has the shining moment as he address the latest goings on in police brutality ad injustice: “We want justice, police supposed to protect and serve/And then they shoot us down like wild animals/The nerve of them cold-hearted killers/With blue suits slaying our black youth/The earth cries from all the blood that’s being spilled…” The backward quote comes from RZA “The original man is God, the supreme being, black man from Asia” It’s done that way because Rae’s last bars explain the slavery tactics of turning black people against each other. A stunning track, but compared to A Better Tomorrow Part 1, well that’s another story…literally.
Shout out to Martin Luther King – he made the album! How crazy is that!!! In ‘Never Let Go’, the clan drop jewels all over the track… even if RZA clearly got his message across, he could have sounded a bit more savage or have that tone of voice he had in the Gravediggaz Shovel album…Wu-Tang Reunion closes out the album… originally called ‘Family Reunion’ when it was released in the Spring of 2013, the soul is all there but there were issues of the first single that it should be a head banger…
…and that’s the main reason Wu fans are divided over this album: Lack of raw, head bangers, that 4th Chamber like sound, that Winter Warz type sound. Fans all over social media are disappointed over this album, and rightfully so… yet a lot of them don’t break it down properly, this is where I come in.
“…and the RZA, he’s the sharpest muthaf***a in the whole clan he always on point…with the beats, with the rhymes whatever, any DJ..” (Method Man, Intermission, 1993)
Is that statement still relevant 20 years later? Or is RZA ahead of his time? What RZA has done is incorporate a lot more live instrumentation over traditional Wu beats – if you listen very closely, the Wu-Tang sound is all there. This is all good – IF RZA did this on his solo albums… the fans may receive it a lot more. The fans were told – this is the last clan album. So in that case, the clan needs to go out in a bang.
“N!**@$ can’t even understand half this sh!t
I think n!**@$ ain’t gonna figure it out til the year Two-G…” (RZA, Bells Of War, 1997)
…but the album doesn’t seem that epic to be that LAST album, we did feel that vibe with Jay-Z’s The Black Album, but not this. Fans say no wonder Raekwon had his issues… listen to Raekwon on this album – he truly shined. He wanted outside producers to add-on. RZA should have agreed, maybe not Dr Dre as reported, but maybe producers that can capture the Wu-Tang sound like MF DOOM, Apollo Brown or 9th Wonder. Having said that, if RZA did allow that, the same fans with the gripes would complain that they want a fully produced RZA/Wu-Elements album. Two of those aforementioned producers are criticized for not varying their beats, but RZA shows growth and progression. Is it really a bad thing? This is 20 years later, you can’t expect it to be 1993. The clan have evolved from that, even though there are moments in the album (Hold the Heater, Pioneer The Frontier, Necklace).
Side notes: Even though Tekitha was not as dominantly featured like earlier albums, it was good to hear her background vocals in the Better Tomorrow Part 2 track. A few WU-TANG!!! Chants wouldn’t have hurt either, severely lacking in this album. It was great to see the more dominant MCs in the crew step back a little while Masta Killa, U-God and Cappadonna in particular moved forward with more fire in their belly.
One other thing worth noting, When Wu-Tang Forever first dropped in 97, a lot of fans actually dismissed it. Fast forward over 15 years later, and fans hail it as arguably the best Wu album. Let’s see what happens with this album in about 10 years time. Even the clan have hinted that A Better Tomorrow may not be the last album at the conference. With all that said, Is A Better Tomorrow a good album? YES. Is it an album we had hoped for as its last album? NO. Is it a classic? Ask me in 10 years.