As an adult in their 30s, I’ve casually enjoyed Wu-Tang Clan for 20 years. They’ve always kinda been around and I’ve always kinda enjoyed them. They’re never the first hip-hop group I put on but whenever they’re on, I find myself nodding my head, happy they exist. When I first heard the single “Ruckus In B Minor” a few months ago, I loved it. I instantly put it on my Best of 2014 Spotify list. It’s still there.
Their new album, A Better Tomorrow, came out last week. It’s not bad. At least I think it’s not bad.
I did not know about 2011’s Legendary Weapons until today. Completely stayed off my radar. And my friends. The last Wu-Tang album I remember becoming a topic of conversation was 2005’s Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture, which is barely a Wu-Tang album. In other words, it’s been ten years since I consumed a Wu-Tang album.
Upon first listen, track 1, “Ruckus In B Minor,” is the best song on the album. “40th Street Black / We Will Fight” is a close second. “Mistaken Identity,” at least the music, sounds like something that might appear on the next Jack White album. “Pioneer The Frontier” sounds like early 00s MF DOOM in the best way possible.
Not everything is great. “Miracle” is a bad song. Bad. The hook in “Keep Watch” is the worst thing on the album. 2 out of 15 bad songs isn’t that bad.
Am I enjoying A Better Tomorrow because I haven’t been paying attention? Is it just an OK album that’s distracting members from better solo records? Hip-hop writer Marcus Dowling might know the answer.
Well, Brandon, this album isn’t terrible, but it’s not great, either.
It’s the kind of album that would benefit from only one copy being physically sold, because so much of what this album is comprised of is the equivalent of Georges Seurat repainting his pointillist dots from 1884’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” on a brand new canvas and selling it all over again. To elucidate a larger point, anyone who wants to buy Seurat’s original should know that it sold in 1924 for what would be $328,000 adjusted for modern inflation. Thus, comparatively, RZA claiming that Wu-Tang’s rap-game pointilism would net $5 million when sold isn’t too far from a believable figure.
The Wu-Tang Clan may be best compared to a revolutionary painter of only one uniquely revolutionary style. Their kung-fu and stream-of-consciousness-driven style of conceptualization and presentation are iconic, and thus are never not appreciated. However, to continue the aforementioned painting allegory, for this album you’d hope that either The Wu became Lichstenstein-style pop artists able to critique their legacy, or just head in a different direction altogether. Maybe they could use their voices and flows over a similar, yet modern style of production? Calling in a Sango, Kaytranada, Gaslamp Killer or creator of a similar independent ilk would have maybe created a new style, something like Picasso shifting from the”Blue” to the “Rose” period. Instead, on A Better Tomorrow, the Clan plays it safe and the result is something that 15 years ago would have been excellent, but 15 years later leaves much to be desired.
Sometimes the rappers-as-colors and beats-as-techniques still pop off the canvas. Brandon, you’re right. “Ruckus in B Minor” is incredible. RZA and Rick Rubin are behind the boards on that one, so, yeah. It’s amazing. Somehow Rick Rubin has done something in the mastering here where he kept the dirt and static in the track just enough to give the voices some slight discoloration. Wu’s known for dusty samples, tracks that install dust-bunnies in the bass bin. It’s 2014 so we’re at a point in technology where everything can sound clean, but Rubin leaves just enough filth in there for the track to hit home. I love Ghostface here (he’s still sharper than ever) and Meth and Raekwon here are outstanding, too. Papa Meth telling the young boys to pull up their pants is awesome and is actually on a listen one of the song’s best lyrical selling points.
“40th Street Black / We Will Fight” is basically 2000’s “Gravel Pit” for the modern age, while “Mistaken Identity” sounds like a live band’s take on 1995’s GZA hit “Liquid Swords.” “Pioneer The Frontier” sounds like MF Doom, yes, but in the way that heady, ashy blunt rap’s last puff happened forever ago, and fans of that music have never smoked a blunt that ill in quite some time. Again, this album copies everything we love about the Wu-Tang Clan, but doesn’t necessarily advance it. Is that boring, certainly. Does that make this a bad album? No. Does it make you want to pay $5 million for it? Well, only if the original Wu-Tang Clan itself is hanging in the art gallery of your mind.