A Better Tomorrow arrives seven years after the last proper Wu album, 2007’s 8 Diagrams, which awkwardly attempted to push the iconic rap group’s sound forward with experimental arrangements and unexpected collaborations. In contrast, A Better Tomorrow is very much a back-to-basics entry in the mighty Wu catalog, brimming with soul blasts, kung-fu dialogue and elder-statesmen sloganeering that would sound tired if it wasn’t coming from such trusted sources.
All of the principal Wu-Tang members are on board, and for the most part, they all stay in their respective lanes: Inspectah Deck sets off a couple songs with typical slickness, Raekwon dishes out gritty cocaine tales, GZA (too rarely) climbs aboard to drop polysyllabic wisdoms, and Method Man remains the nimble frontman. “Never let go of your dream, never let go of your team,” spits RZA, the executive producer and glue of the group, on “Never Let Go,” the words ringing out like a solemn prayer.
On Monday night (Nov. 3), Wu mastermind the RZA hosted a private listening session at Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan, where he played the full album for a group of journalists and mixed in some personal commentary before he was joined by fellow Clan members U-God and Masta Killa.
“You will hear some maturity in our thinking process,” RZA stated before pressing play on the 15-song album, which he said took two years to create. “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.”
At one point during the listening session, RZA turned around and, speaking about the boom-gap banger “Pioneer The Frontier,” said, “The only way to describe [this beat] is New York hip-hop.” A Better Tomorrow impressively captures the gritty New York sound that RZA helped stylize two decades ago, and has since been longing to evolve. There are nods to the Wu’s past — the first song, “Ruck in B Minor,” starts with an Ol’ Dirty Bastard intro, and the album-closing “Wu-Tang Reunion” nicks part of the “Protect Ya Neck” beginning before finding its own way. Although it lacks innovation and anything resembling a crossover single, A Better Tomorrow sounds wonderfully fresh as it looks back, whether setting “Son Of a Preacher Man” over a teeth-gnashing beat on “Preacher’s Daughter” or letting horns and funk guitar swirl around the verses on the title track. Nothing feels stale on this album and the camaraderie doesn’t come off as forced, which already sets A Better Tomorrow apart from its predecessor.
“I think over the years, I’ve come to realize that the people that you attract or attract you are somewhat part of your family because it’s a mind set, a mind frame,” RZA declared when the album listening had concluded. Wu-Tang Clan has plenty of lifelong fans who feel like the Clan members are their family; with A Better Tomorrow due out in less than a month, it feels like a joyous reunion is right around the corner.
Here is the track list to A Better Tomorrow:
1. “Ruckus In B Minor”
3. “40th Street Black / We Will Fight”
4. “Mistaken Identity”
5. “Hold The Heater”
6. “Crushed Egos”
7. “Keep Watch”
9. “Preacher’s Daughter”
10. “Pioneer The Frontier”
12. “Ron O’Neal”
13. “A Better Tomorrow”
14. “Never Let Go”
15. “Wu-Tang Reunion”