The problem with the new Wu-Tang Clan album A Better Tomorrow is that it’s not the last Wu-Tang Clan album. The last time the whole group came together, it was on 2008’s 8 Diagrams, a messy psychedelic boom-bap splooge that fully indulged RZA’s wandering acid-samurai sensibility. It was glorious. More than The W or The Pretty Toney Album or No Said Date or the instrumental version of the Ghost Dog soundtrack, 8 Diagrams stands as the great lost Wu-Tang masterpiece. It’s dark and woozy and all-over-the-place. There’s no center, but there are so many magical moments: the breathless Ghostface Killah supermarket-fight narrative, the drowning spaghetti-western whistles, the transformative “Stick My For My Riches” appearance from middle-aged soul journeyman Gerald Alston. 8 Diagrams got no respect when it came out — least of all from the group themselves. Raekwon gave interviews disparaging RZA as a “hip-hop hippie” and shitting on the album’s head-blown tone. When the crew toured shortly after its release, they didn’t do any 8 Diagrams songs, and they didn’t invite RZA to come with them. It took years for that rift to heal, and RZA had to publicly beg and scold and cajole until holdouts like Raekwon agreed to come back into the fold to make A Better Tomorrow. The end result: A relatively clean old-head comfort-food rap album. It’s fine, and it’s good enough to get Album Of The Week during one of those slow end-of-the-year weeks. But from a group who can put together a work of gorgeous lunacy like 8 Diagrams even in their post-relevance dotage, it can only be a disappointment.
Regarding disappointment: The first verse on A Better Tomorrow belongs to Inspectah Deck, a man who has proven to be a ridiculously great leadoff hitter. (See: “Triumph.”) But that first verse is a muddled soup of pop-culture references dispensed haphazardly, and without style. Deck claims to be “the mentalist with the big bang theory.” It’s not just him, though. On the hook of that same song, “Ruckus In B Minor,” Method Man is harrumphing that kids need to pull their pants up and stop letting everyone see their drawers. This feels like the exact opposite of the young, hungry Wu-Tang, the unruly mob who moved in flickering firelight, weaving a dense cosmology and convincingly threatening to strip you of everything you own. This is sitcom-dad Wu-Tang. It’s middle-aged Wu-Tang, feet up on the recliner, zoning out on past glories, broad-comedically wondering how the world became such a different place. Lyrically, there’s no desperation. Instead, there’s a clumsy indolence, a too-quick willingness to say, “Oh, hey, remember ‘Protect Ya Neck’?” We expect howlers from RZA, and we get them. (“Got inches for y’all wenches!”) We don’t expect them from the other guys. And yet there are howlers all over this thing.
On the other hand: What great sitcom dads! Even with this safe, slowed-down incarnation of Wu-Tang, you’ve still got a guy like Raekwon out there, ready to mutter something amazingly nonsensical: “Meetings at the Vatican, drinking Scotch with the Muscle Milk!” You’ve still got a crew of pointed, wizened voices that still sound great careening into each other. Even with their the-world-is-fucked-up songs — and A Better Tomorrow has a generous handful of those — there’s a warm and hard-earned contentment in these guys’ voices. “Preachers Daughter,” in which they enthuse about fucking literal preachers’ daughters over a sample of Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man,” is all-the-way on the nose, but that’s sort of its charm, and everyone seems to be having fun with it. The song ends with “Wu-Tang Reunion,” a warm Rhodes-soaked reverie about how much they all enjoy hanging out with each other, how they hope their kids will marry each other. If you love rap music and you’re of a certain age, you’ve grown up hearing these guys together. If A Better Tomorrow is a mere victory lap rather than a push forward, it’s a pleasant and well-deserved one. The only other album I really considered for Album Of The Week this week was another legacy affair: AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust. That’s a fun album, but it’s also a bit rote and robotic, a reflection of decades of great albums rather than one that belongs among their number. You could say the same thing about A Better Tomorrow. But even at this stage, there’s an endearingly human messiness to Wu-Tang; they seem more closely tied to the people they were when they broke in.
And then there’s the music. RZA claims that he spent $500,000 of his own money to record A Better Tomorrow. If that’s true, it’s a sign that RZA maybe needs some better financial planning. And god knows he probably spent at least $100,000 of it on missed flights when he was trying to get all the group members together. Still, you can hear it in album’s nooks and crannies. RZA has never relied as heavily on live instrumentation as he does here, but it’s all just as carefully orchestrated as the cut-up samples he used to use. There’s a warmth to these arrangements; it’s not the knife-edge minor-key death-symphony style that RZA was working 20 years ago. But it’s still cool to hear him fill every inch of the frame with sound: Damaged-jazz piano runs, wafts of organ, gurgling guitars. On “Preachers Daughter,” RZA takes an overwhelmingly familiar song and makes it just different enough to be weird, throwing swampy guitars all over everything and shaking it all up. “Ron O’Neal” is built from a dazed, stumbling funk horn riff. “Crushed Egos” buries an incendiary chant under an off-kilter organ/drums thing that refuses to completely resolve itself. As with the rapping, none of the production work will make you forget the things that RZA has done, even the triumphs of his recent past. But for a rap group 21 years in, one who only barely agreed to reconvene in the first place, it’s still an impressive effort. And when the year draws to a close and the release-date calendar gets sparser and sparser, that’s sometimes enough.
A Better Tomorrow is out now on Warner Bros.
Other albums of note out this week:
• AC/DC’s reliably stupid-fun Rock Or Bust.
• She & Him’s smoothly twee covers collection Classics.
• Owen’s stripped-back and heartfelt covers collection Other People’s Songs.
• The Velveteens’ giddy, reverby indie-pop debut Sun’s Up.
• Kid Moxie’s dramatic electro-pop reverie 1888.
• Le Rug’s depression exploration Swelling (My Own Worst Anime).
• Haethen’s atmospheric black metaller Shaped By Aeolian Winds.
• School ’94’s Like You EP.
• Mogwai’s Music Industry 3: Fitness Industry 1 EP.
• Beacon’s L1 EP.
• Kal Marks’ Just A Lonely Fart EP.
• Tall Tall Trees’ The Seasonal EP.
• Meanwhile’s The Element Yes EP.