"Who is this record for?" First thoughts on Wu-Tang Clan's <em>A Better Tomorrow</em>

It’s finally happening. After countless delays, a war of words between RZA and Raekwon, and head-scratching side-projects, the Wu-Tang Clan‘s new album A Better Tomorrow is finally coming out on December 2.

Perhaps to prove that the album exists, Warner Bros. scheduled a listening party at New York’s Quad Studios. FACT’s Brad Stabler was there — here are his first thoughts on the album.

It could’ve been 1996 inside the Quad if someone had made the call to ban all the cell phones. A score of press, fans, and squad packed the studio’s interior early, hitching a lift off the strong (free) cocktails the bartender made. Once the main room got too hot, we were ushered inside a cold, empty room that too became sweltering once the herd hung around for five minutes. We couldn’t win. As the first hour went by, none of the conversation turned to Wu-Tang Clan. What more could you say? At this point you could either recite the intro to ‘Method Man’ by heart, or you couldn’t. Liquid Swords is still ubiquitous at dive bars. ‘Uzi (Pinky Ring)’ is still mad slept on.

It’s 2014, and the only thing bumping through the Quad as the Wu began to show up one by one (except for Method Man, sadly), was golden age hip-hop, with ‘Buggin’ Out’ damn near starting a sing-along. At 7:50, ‘A Better Tomorrow’ off Wu-Tang Forever played, and then, after a quick intro, so did the record of the same name.

Good news: it’s not terrible. Bad news: it’s still 2014. Is this record even necessary, son?

A Better Tomorrow, the first outing from the 36 Chambers since 2007’s limp 8 Diagrams, scores right out of the gate. ‘Ruckus in B Minor’ has all the makings of a catalog classic. The group asserts they’re still number one right at the drop, and with Method Man and GZA lobbing fastballs, you could almost accept this to be true. ‘Ruckus’ is one of RZA’s strongest productions to date– the samples come fierce and fast, the tempo starts and stops, and even the requisite gunshots sound meaner than they have on a Wu-Tang production in years. Its follow-up, ‘Felt’, one-ups it. The beat is a sneak attack, reversed drums duking it out against soul swallowed in reverb and awkward pauses for the MCs to break through. At this point, I was hooked.

But something felt off right away. The best Clan records have always been built off the individual charisma from the MCs than the group’s collective chemistry– the latter always hidden until the former has finished the track off. ‘Ruckus’ and ‘Felt’ prove the rule again, but starting with the third tune the group collectively comes unglued one by one. The irreverent humor is mostly gone. The verses slowly began to lose personality at the same time the MCs begin to decreasingly acknowledge the others. RZA’s production gets more saccharine, becoming more Champloo than Afro Samurai.

With the exception of ‘Hold the Heater’, A Better Tomorrow‘s entire middle is a parade of duds. ‘Preacher’s Daughter’, which begins with Ghostface whimpering “I met on her on the bus with black eyes/She said she don’t fuck with black guys,” turns into an after school special not even a dark ass flip of Al Green’s ‘Here I Am’ can save. A more sober, personal direction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for long stretches this record feels less like a Wu-Tang outing and more like a stopover at group therapy.
 

“That leaves the question: who is this record for?”

 
The final third thankfully pulls through. ‘Necklace’ — with its sample scolding “Brother, I think that necklace is causing you too much trouble” — is aces. Inspectah Deck and Ghostface deliver two of their best verses in years — Pretty Tony almost one-ups ‘Shakey Dog’ off of Fishscale — and the track gets quotable line-for-line. This forward momentum sails all the way through the close of ‘Wu-Tang Reunion’. The humor comes back roaring — my favorite being Method Man somehow making “When I’m in jail, hold onto the soap” and “Niggas sip coke through a crazy straw” on ‘Never Let Go’ and ‘Ron O’Neal’ work — and it’s a solid landing after the record’s middle. The latter packs even more punch as an album cut.

So there’s a solid one-two punch, a flaccid middle, and a stellar close. As the record played, the Quad — specifically younger, more casual heads — began to clear out one-by-one. Or at least retreat to the bar to wait for Instagram opportunities. That leaves the question: who is this record for?

As a group effort, it doesn’t work: the members are there, but the Shaolin isn’t. As something that could stack up to the rest of hip-hop in 2014, it doesn’t work either. As a personal change in direction, it seems tired. Old heads seemed genuinely baffled by the album’s middle. The bounce is back, and when the record gets back to the old swagger fans are used to, it’s on point. The rest of the time, there’s no edge. At least on the first impression.
Good news, though: it’s not terrible.

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