Wu-Tang Clan – ‘A Better Tomorrow’

The veteran NYC rap crew's long-delayed sixth album keeps the Wu-Tang legacy intact

It’s a nightmare getting the Wu-Tang Clan together, so much so that there’s a film about it. 2007 documentary Rock The Bells followed promoter Chang Weisberg’s attempt to persuade all 10 members to perform at his festival of the same name. “Nigga, you can sit on the stage, just give me one minute, man,” yells an exasperated RZA down the phone to an awol Ol’ Dirty Bastard (four months before his death). In 2014, there’s no sign that RZA’s job as Wu-Tang’s producer and organiser has got any easier. ‘A Better Tomorrow’, the New York rap collective’s sixth album and first since 2007’s ‘8 Diagrams’ (discounting the recent one-copy-only ‘Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’, from which we’ve only heard a 51-second sample, featuring Cher of all people), arrives over three years after it was initially talked up by Raekwon. It’s being hawked as a 20-year anniversary record, but you don’t need to be sometime Wu-Tang producer Mathematics to work out it’s now 21 years since 1993’s era-defining debut ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’.

The first track from ‘A Better Tomorrow’ – the distinctly average O’Jays-sampling ‘Family Reunion’ (now titled ‘Wu-Tang Reunion’) – emerged in June 2013, 18 months ago. “It’s good to see the Wu-Tang under one roof” rapped Masta Killa, but you could tell in the lazy way that Method Man proclaimed “20 years later, we still bang whatever now” that all was not well in camp Wu-Tang. A spectacular falling out between RZA and Raekwon over the group’s future ensued, coupled with rumours that the album had been canned, until two better songs, ‘Keep Watch’ and ‘Ron O’Neal’, appeared in March and August this year, without Raekwon on them (although he was back in the group by May and appears on other tracks on the album).

Then – bam! – a new record deal was announced in October and a bona fide release date was set, followed in November by ‘Ruckus In B Minor’, a genuinely exciting track co-produced by Rick Rubin that opens the album and finds Meth barking, “Still number one!” with actual conviction. Something had clearly happened behind the scenes, helping this album to become more than a throwaway funeral. Against the odds, it’s a largely cohesive, mature and constantly interesting work that’s both an old-style, hard New York hip-hop album (‘Hold The Heater’, ‘Necklace’) and a sombre, forward-thinking exhibition of RZA’s ambitions as a composer. It has a warm, analogue feel – a mix of samples and live musicianship, including parts played by Isaac Hayes’ old band, who RZA recorded in Memphis. Lyrically there’s a loose theme: one of redemption (‘Mistaken Identity’, ‘Miracle’) and seeking betterment for all (‘Ron O’Neal’ and the title-track, which samples ‘Wake Up Everybody’ by Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes). As GZA, excellent throughout, rhymes on ‘Never Let Go’: “Never let go of your mind, it’s a terrible thing to waste or lose, but it’s very hard to find / Being that ignorance is lethal, we must touch hearts, souls, harmonise the people”.

When Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame said “nobody want to hear that damn dictionary rap” in 2010, it could have been hip-hop’s punk-rock moment – dismissing the wordy, old guard like Wu-Tang Clan. ‘A Better Tomorrow’ isn’t all good (most noticeably, it’s lacking killer verses from Raekwon and Ghostface Killah), but it’s a bold, clever album that’s thankfully positioned away from the hip-hop zeitgeist. It’ll secure an audience sick of cheap laptop drill and trap, and if it’s Wu-Tang’s swansong, they’re dropping out with their legacy intact.

Phil Hebblethwaite

Details

Director: RZA, Mathematics, 4th Disciple, Rick Rubin, Adrian Younge
Record label: Warner Bros/Parlophone
Release date: 02 Dec, 2014