Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow (2014)
In the twenty-plus years since arriving on the scene, the members of Wu-Tang Clan have released about 50 albums, both as a group and as individual solo artists. Depending on the criteria used (does Cappadonna count? What about Redman & Method Man albums? How about Czarface?) that number can rise significantly. Of those 50, some are undeniable classics.
Unfortunately, following the amazing Wu-Tang Forever, which marked the end of RZA’s Five Year Plan, the Clan began to lose a bit of its luster in the late ’90s. Aside from a few bright spots (most courtesy of Ghostface Killah), the second round of solo albums generally failed to match the brilliance of their debuts. Similarly, the group projects also began trending downward. 2000’s The W was stellar, but had a few hiccups, and 2001’s Iron Flag was a schizophrenic disc, an understandable result of having been made in less than a month.
Their 2007 release, 8 Diagrams, was marred by infighting (more than usual), specifically Raekwon and Ghostface renouncing the live instrumentation beats RZA employed, calling him a “hip-hop hippie.” The album had its moments (“Campfire” is dope), but it was the group’s worst album up to that point. In many ways, they have become The Rolling Stones of hip-hop, embarking on very successful world tours, but only if they play the classics. Most in attendance don’t want to hear any Wu songs post-2002.
A little over two years ago, the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the debut of the group’s first album (along with the group itself), Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers]. RZA’s original intention was to release one final group album to “close the circle” after 20 years (and not have their swan song be 8 Diagrams). But he couldn’t make it happen. Conflicting schedules and personalities got in the way and some members, specifically Raekwon, chafed at RZA’s dictatorial methods, including the way he chose to divide the money (their beef was far from a first in Wu history). Eventually, they buried the hatchet and got a deal done at the last minute.
Despite the passage of time and the incessent drama, there have been some high points in recent years. Iron Flag boasted a few really strong cuts, most notably “Y’all Been Warned,” “Radioactive (Four Assassins),” and the title track. “Watch Your Mouf,” is a perfectly dirty late era Wu song that was meant for 8 Diagrams but was left off when the sample couldn’t be cleared. There was also “9 Milli Bros.” off Ghostface’s Fishscale and “Six Directions of Boxing” from the soundtrack to RZA’s directorial film debut, The Man with the Iron Fists.
In short, it’s not like they can’t get together to produce a banger. So, did they manage to corral their talent and egos one more time? Is A Better Tomorrow a worthy bookend to end the musical output of the greatest hip-hop group of all time?
Everyone knows of my affinity for all things Wu (including beer). They are my Beatles or Stones or Zeppelin or U2. I actually bought the physical copy of this very album.
So it pains me to say that the answer is a resounding no.
The album kicks off with “Ruckus in B Minor.” Co-produced by RZA and Rick Rubin, it’s decent, and even includes a few Ol’ Dirty Bastard lines, though it is a bit jarring to hear Method Man chastising young men to pull up their pants. “Ron O’Neal,” which they performed on The Daily Show, is a very good song that is undone by a very weak chorus.
“Necklace,” with its grimy beat, vocal samples, and raw rhymes sounds like it would have fit perfectly on The W. It’s probably the best song on the album. No surprise, then, that RZA didn’t produce it.
Even if the entire world didn’t know that Raekwon was a last minute addition to the recording (and obviously demanded different beats to rhyme over), it is obvious when listening to the album. He tacks on a verse towards the end of “Ruckus in B Minor” over a minimalist beat without a bassline. And he also gets almost an entire track to himself – RZA adds the hook and a tongue-twisting 8 bars reminiscent of the old days – called “Crushed Egos” that is classic Rae just spitting over hard drums.
Regarding the rest of the group, their lyrics are good enough. They don’t have the basic street anger of 36 Chambers or the brilliant stream-of-consciousness thoughts of Wu-Tang Forever, but most are still clever enough and mix street and book knowledge, even if the pop culture references sounds like they came from your dad (Deck mentions Breaking Bad, The Mentalist, and The Big Bang Theory in a single verse). In fairness, though, I imagine it’s hard to come up with something rugged when presented with these instrumentals, because just like on 8 Diagrams, the album’s biggest flaws are its beats and, by extension, themes.
One look at the song titles will tell you that we’re not in 1995. In fact, very few songs sound like hip-hop music from any era. The majority of the album is filled with admirable attempts at uplifting songs with meaning and heart over soft backdrops. “Felt” sounds like a bad mashup of EDM and a classic rock guitars, which results in a mess, “Miracle” is probably the worst song ever heard on a Wu-Tang Clan album, and as The A.V. Club wrote, “40th Street Black/We Will Fight” sounds “like 2000’s ‘Gravel Pit’ as done by a high-school marching band.”
I love this group. They’re more than just music to me. I wanted to love this album so badly. But I just can’t. Most of it is painful to sit through. The final track, “Wu-Tang Reunion,” is a microcosm of the entire project: an exciting idea that falls far short in execution.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Tha Doggfather | Blood in My Eye | The Best of Both Worlds | Can-I-Bus | Beats, Rhymes and Life | Encore | Immobilarity | 14 Shots to the Dome | Forever | Christmas on Death Row | Double Up | The New Danger
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.