On December 2nd, 2014 the Wu-Tang Clan will be dropping their sixth and most likely, final, album. If this comes as news to you, you may want to catch up. Last week, a lucky group of around 50 industry folk and simply, fans, including Young Guru, gathered into NYC’s Quad Studios to hear A Better Tomorrow. Being that the time between this one and their last album has been the longest hiatus without a full album (seven years) and rumors of discordance within the group brewing, fans, old and new, have been holding on to mixed feelings. It’s been a long and bumpy road for the group hailing from Shaolin lands and A Better Tomorrow is the bow that ties it all together, pretty or not.
Before U-God and Masta Killa joined him in the studio, RZA opened with this statement:
“This new album is called A Better Tomorrow. I am the producer of it. The Wu-Tang Clan… every member is present on the record. I’m not gonna pre-empt that, but you’ll hear some maturity and our thinking process. It’s a very lyrical album. A lot of stories and vignettes of stories you’ll hear. And I think you’ll get a taste of New York flavor as well as some… travel down the road of history of music, yo. So, without further ado… Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow. Press, welcome. And thanks for coming out.”
That said, here’s three takeaway’s from that we got from the Wu’ at the exclusive listening.
RZA Has Shown Growth As A Producer And Emcee
Everything RZA mentioned in his opening speech was correct. Every member made an appearance on the album, including a few appearances by ODB. There are several vignettes. And there is some apparent maturation. But what he left out is that he took it upon himself to deliver the most on what has been perceived to be a RZA driven project. On many of the tracks, he switches up the beat from verse to verse to highlight different parts of it, whether it’s the guitar or the rhythm or the vocals. Instead of repeating eight bars of the same melody and drum pattern, RZA dug deep to hold the listener’s attention and anticipate what might come next. From his days with the Gravediggaz to starting with the Wu-Tang, RZA has developed his production style to fill the whole room instead of creating an ominous feeling with the barebones of a beat.
Lyrically, RZA showed the most improvement in flow versatility and wordplay when compared to his earlier years. Unfortunately, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were not featured as prominently as the other members, possibly making RZA’s growth that much more noticeable, but you can’t take away how perfectly he adapts to ride the beat on “40th Street Black/We Will Fight.” And during “Ron O’Neal,” he came out of his studio to energetically rap his verse in the room with all of the journalists.
A Better Tomorrow Is More Of A Compilation Than A Conceptual Project
It’s important to first note that they only played the album in its entirety once. But based off of that first listen, while there definitely tracks that center around a single concept, “Mistaken Identity” and “A Better Tomorrow,” most of the tracks felt as if they were strung together from various recording studios across the country. The one thing holding it all together is RZA’s energy and production. It’s understandable that each member of the Wu-Tang has a busy schedule, seriously limiting the amount of chemistry that would have enriched the album.
But when you compare A Better Tomorrow to their first album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), you can’t help but be a little disappointed. There are no skits like the intro to “Method Man” or “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” Instead, there are short, thought provoking monologues from RZA sprinkled here and there. And there’s no sense of gamesmanship to outdo each other from verse to verse. This may all be attributed to the “maturity” that RZA spoke of. If so, a little immaturity could have gone a long way.
Wu-Tang Added New Elements To A Time Tested Formula
Some things haven’t changed for the Wu. There are plenty of Kung Fu movie samples for the nerds to research, most memorably on “Necklace.” Many of GZA’s rhymes focus on scientific terminology and concepts. And overall, many of the songs are lyrically brutal and threatening that evoke memories of “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off).” None of that has changed. RZA took some experimental leeway with voice distortion but the biggest addition is the presence of singer, Nathaniel. He sings the hook on four of the tracks, which is a departure of sorts for the clan.
One has to wonder why they decided to wait for their potentially last album to bolster a young talent from NYC like Nathaniel. Aside from the R&B element, RZA takes another gambit on “Preacher’s Daughter.” He reinterprets “Son of a Preacher Man,” made famous by Dusty Springfield, with a Country guitar melody that outshines prior attempts in Hip-Hop to marry the two genres.