Published Nov 28, 2014One of the first voices you hear on the Wu-Tang Clan's first group album in eight years is that of the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. Intended to convey the group's ongoing relevance, it also brings to mind ODB's most infamous utterance, "Wu-Tang is for the children." That phrase seems particularly pertinent when considering A Better Tomorrow, given the group's veteran status. Last year, the Wu-Tang Clan celebrated the 20th anniversary of bringing the ruckus with "Protect Ya Neck," yet on this record they are clearly trying to impart wisdom to the next generation.
The familial "Wu-Tang Reunion," which closes the vintage soul-doused last few tracks on the album, is presumably meant to balm the wounds of the group's recent internal conflicts for outward appearances, but what precedes it isn't exactly a convincing case. That being said, traditional Wu elements, such as the copious references to Blaxploitation and kung fu movies via audio snippets predictably abound. Amidst the self-affirming lyrical exercises, there's an admirable thematic unity on tracks like "Mistaken Identity," dealing with the slippery cycle of racial profiling and incarceration. The Wu's legendary MCs aren't at their thesaurus-grabbing best, and there are definitely some underwhelming tracks, but arguably they all have their moments.
Raekwon, the most openly critical member of the group in recent years, shines on "Crushed Egos," while Ghostface delivers a passionate indictment of the response to the ongoing spread of ebola on "Miracle." The unfortunately scarce GZA also delivers, and Method Man is immediately the centre of attention pretty much every time he shows up. Meth pointedly exacerbates the aforementioned generation gap on a few occasions, admonishing youth to "pull your pants up" ("Ruckus in B Minor") and affirming himself as a b-boy as opposed to a d-boy (on the highlight "Keep Watch"). If his tone isn't a potential turnoff to his intended audience, then the music might be; while RZA is still the primary producer on this album, he gets plenty of help, most notably from Adrian Younge, who produced Ghostface's well-received 2013 LP 12 Reasons to Die.
Consequently, the gritty lo-fi sonics the Wu built their rep on is in short supply. It's admirable to move on and evolve, but despite Younge's stellar reputation for applying live instrumentation to hip-hop, (an approach that even influences tracks he didn't co-produce here), this route doesn't necessarily gel well with the all the Wu-Tang MCs. On paper, all the collaborators (including Rick Rubin, whose fingerprints are somewhere on "Ruckus in B Minor,") are indisputably established in their own right, but for some reason, A Better Tomorrow never really coalesces into a satisfying whole. (Asylum/Warner)