The Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) turned 20 last fall, commemorated in a litany of glowing reminiscences and a lengthy intercontinental festival tour. There was a clean-cut finality to the proceedings, a sense that the group was sending off a movement that had finally run its course. Producer and de facto group leader RZA thought he’d get the guys together for one last job and spent the year trying to will a new Wu-Tang album into existence in time for 36 Chambers’ November anniversary. The date came and went, but no album surfaced (though we did get “Family Reunion”, a sentimental homecoming over a perhaps-too-chunky slice of the O’Jays’ 1975 hit of the same name). Work was plagued by old complaints about RZA’s lush live band arrangements flying in the face of the claustrophobic kung fu grit of the Clan’s classics. Raekwon publicly challenged RZA’s authority and boycotted the sessions. The new album had a name (A Better Tomorrow, after the emotional Wu-Tang Forever cut) but no fully functioning group to record it.
Tense negotiations and a reconciliation followed, but A Better Tomorrow arrives this week illuminating the early apprehensions. The production here is more of a piece with the muscular soundtrack work of RZA’s 2012 directorial debut The Man With the Iron Fists than anything bearing the Wu-Tang name, barring the heavily orchestrated bits of 2007’s 8 Diagrams that inspired Raekwon’s last mutiny attempt. But A Better Tomorrow’s thick and moody soundscapes run off-puttingly perpendicular to the group’s cerebral storytelling. “Felt” practically drowns memorable turns from Ghostface Killah and Method Man in unnecessary drum-n-bass flourishes. Inspectah Deck and Cappadonna come off uncharacteristically plodding over the fluid, proggy groove of “Mistaken Identity”. Sounds that were once punishing, tumbling out of shoddy recording equipment in a home studio, are distractingly pretty, pumped full of all the crack session playing A Better Tomorrow favors.
Where overbearing arrangements don’t get in the way, a cloying sentimentality does. 4th Disciple delivers one of the album’s better productions with “Miracle”, but a drippy, beatless chorus and melodramatic coda hack the momentum out from under suspenseful verses. “Felt” nicks a chorus from the mawkish ’70s weeper “Feelings”, and the hokey, swinging Dusty Springfield homage of “Preacher’s Daughter” is only listenable for Meth and Ghost’s flexible senses of humor. The title track fits the methodical build of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” under suitably socially conscious verses, but right as you start to hope they’re not just going to play the actual chorus of the original in full, they do, strings ramped noxiously high in the mix. By the time “Family Reunion” hits, A Better Tomorrow will have felt more like a karaoke bar’s old school night than a new album by the guys who gave us “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Triumph”.
When A Better Tomorrow commits to sounding like an actual Wu-Tang affair it starts to cook. Longtime Wu associate Mathematics brings Meth and GZA to life with a lively soul chop on the album’s lead single “Keep Watch” and imbues “40th Street Black/We Will Fight” with the spirit of The W’s upbeat but by no means peppy “Gravel Pit”. “Pioneer the Frontier” fashions the energy of ramshackle W deep cut “Careful (Click, Click)” into a menace RZA can’t even kill when he signs verse one off with “Holla at the moon, my goons at Coachella.” “Necklace” and “Ron O’Neal” follow suit in piling on the soot, and for a moment, this thing is heavy enough to bear the weight of the name on the cover. But all too often, A Better Tomorrow prefers to bask in those idyllic blue skies instead.
Raekwon was right: RZA’s vision no longer suits the rabid, renegade spirit the Wu-Tang Clan represents. He’s helmed a record that’s drunk on its own musicality, one that seems to befuddle the very guys rapping on it. It’s impossible to say how engaged the rest of the members were in recording, whether the wonkier moments here are the result of rappers disinterested in their own beats or production crafted awkwardly around pre-existing verses. But it’s deeply telling that the night the Wu-Tang Clan was set to release its first album in seven years (and possibly, its last one ever), Raekwon was already pushing something else entirely on Twitter. The union hasn’t worked in a while, and rather than hiding irreparable fissures by posting up a unified front to tickle fan nostalgia, better to let it crystallize unblemished in memory. Keep up appearances for the kids if you like, but trust and believe that they can tell when something is off.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1yM9VL9