Let’s throw out a couple of bold declarations about the most mythic group in popular music. The Wu-Tang Clan are the greatest crew in hip hop history. They fundamentally changed the music industry from the ground up; becoming an integral part of the rap universe while still remaining a niche. Their initial five year run from 1993 to 1997, from their earth shaking debut to their chart topping follow up and all of the solo landmarks in between, is quite simply the greatest streak in musical history. Better than The Beatles ’65-’70, The Rolling Stones ’68-’72, Stevie Wonders ’72-’76, all of them. One of the greatest parts of rap music is its world creating powers, and no one was better at that than RZA and the clan. After they debuted and brought a whole new universe of personality, beat making, and style with them on Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, each subsequent release from a member opened a new door. It’s not a “you had to be there” event either. Even with all the acclaim and subsequent releases around the group, the chambers still conceal a rabbit hole for anyone who wants to fall in. With A Better Tomorrow on the way, the first Wu-Tang group album in seven years, the clan is hoping to live up to its promise of “Wu-Tang Is Forever.” But does it have a chance to compete with it’s past?
The answer is no. Every great debut casts a shadow over the rest of the work, but the Wu managed to avoid that curse by having so many divergent personalities. We’re talking about 9 of the most talented MC’s to ever breath here, there’s no way one album could sum up all their talent. Even their post ’97 body of work is vast and extraordinary. But it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly goes wrong here. It’s not fun to hear all the second stringers lead off on the track. The raps are fine, though nothing jumps out from the song.
From the first two singles, I think the problem is the production. RZA is the greatest producer of all time and he deserves the lions share of the credit for the clan’s takeover, not just for creating the murky sonic underworld that embodied the Staten Island rappers, but for the business acumen and leadership qualities that he used to squeeze out so many classics. These songs just aren’t it though. It’s as if he’s updating the dirty samples of the groups origin into a more regal setting. “Ruckus In B Minor” is a much better title than song; the ambitious beat changes for each rapper and yet none of it really connects. “Ron O’Neal” fares better from a rapping standpoint but suffers the same problem. There’s a disconnect between the clan and their producer. This isn’t new. Their last album, 8 Diagrams, drew so much controversy over RZA’s production choices that there was a fissure in the group that wasn’t patched up until now. But where the psychedelic wistfulness of 8 Diagrams was bold and framed the clan in a new light following the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, these new songs don’t seem particularly inspired.
If I was their personal adviser, I’d let them know that the days of the Wu-Tang Clan are over, but that doesn’t mean that Wu-Tang isn’t forever. These are still some of the most accomplished artists in the history of the genre and they’re all in the middle of great things. Raekwon has been bodying guest verses on all sorts of acclaimed albums this year, and he recently dropped a new mixtape We Wanna Thank You, a collection of his freestyles over old school soul songs. It’s his best project in years; a loose, fun exercise showcasing his densely packed rhymes.
Ghostface Killah has slowed down after an outstanding decade that positioned him as a contender for G.O.A.T., but he’s starting to sound inspired again. Teaming up with hip hop/jazz fusion band BadBadNotGood for a collaborative album dropping next year, Ghost luxuriates in his legacy and goes toe to toe with some of the best contemporary rappers around. And he’s not the only clan member finding new life. GZA’s giving talks about science and the universe at Ivy League universities. Method Man is rapping better than he has in years. Even RZA sounds inspired by his new stuff, turning in the highlight verses on the new singles. I’m all for new Wu-Tang and whatever creative muses these guys have they should follow, but maybe a group album isn’t the best way to do it anymore. There’s too much personality to try to wrangle into a room and try to relive the glory days. They deserve better than that. But hopefully I’m wrong and A Better Tomorrow will paint the glorious future that the album art suggests.