21 years ago, Wu-Tang Weren’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit. These days, the W is still revered by some fierce loyalists, but your general rap fan is only really checking for Raekwon, Ghostface and the occasional Method Man cameo is 2014. This December, the entire Wu-Tang Clan reunited for the A Better Tomorrow album (which by all accounts has been in the oven for the past three years), while Ghostface Killah dropped his comic-book inspired narrative LP, 36 Seasons.
Raekwon’s Fly International Luxurious Art has still yet to materialise (although he has been keeping the mean streets of the internets happy with his Throwback Thursday collection). Meanwhile the RZA seems to have entered a more reflective period in his life, in line with the ever-mellowing Cappadonna. Ghost and Rae are still operating in a more aggressive chamber, which seems to have created something of a conceptual rift between the two camps.
Tomorrow bears the stamp of RZA’s more eclectic cinematic aspirations, occasionally resembling the soundtrack of a ‘70s TV cop show. It’s almost as if he’s forgotten the mantra behind the 36 Chambers album, where the beats were designed to highlight the rhymes. Here, the music often overpowers the vocals, abandoning the stripped-back aesthetics that made the Wu such a breath of fresh air. ‘Necklace’, produced by Rakeem’s acolyte 4th Disciple, starkly contrasts this and provides the highlight of the album by letting the Wu do what they do best.
Elsewhere, GZA slurs through his verses in a manner which suggests he was dragged out of his local speak-easy after a night of guzzling sweet premium wine, while U-God continues playing his position as the Melachi The Nutcracker of the crew, minus the entertainment value. Raekwon and Ghost appear on Tomorrow, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, while Method Man has lost nothing of his sharp verbal dexterity, as he demonstrated when he stole the show from A$AP Mob last year on their own song.
Ghostface on the other hand, has followed up the style-over-substance Film Noir Rap of his 12 Reasons To Die album, which dazzled fans with silk-screened, hand-numbered album covers and cassette-only remixes but was fairly dull in its, ahem, execution. Once again he’s gone the route of the comic book narrative and played a character on wax, but thankfully due to a stronger supporting cast of rappers and producers 36 Seasons makes for a more compelling case, as AZ, Kool G Rap and others help to sell this somewhat predictable tale of returning to the old neighborhood.
The issue I have with story-driven hip-hop projects is much the same one I hold with comedy albums: they’re great the first couple of times, but lack replay value. Once you’ve seen the end of a movie, how many times do you want to see it again? There are moments of brilliance, such as the cold weather anthem that is ‘Homicide’, but some poorly sung hooks and sleepily delivered verses tend to dilute the overall experience, placing it firmly into B-movie territory.
As an album, A Better Tomorrow is a patchy experience, failing to reward the listeners with much more than brief snippets of that old magic. More often than not you’ll find yourself baffled and frustrated, wishing that RZA would return to that ‘rec room’ era one more time instead of recreating that part of the afternoon after a BBQ, when your drunk uncle starts to sing old Motown hits badly
36 Seasons, while seeming to have all the ingredients for something special, manages to entertain in spots but is weighed down by the feeling that the players are simply phoning in their lines for a cheque, as if providing voice-overs for the latest Dreamworks film packed with wacky cartoon animals.
Will Raekwon’s FILA album be able to reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of this once illustrious rap powerhouse in the same way that Only Built For Cuban Linx II did? The short answer is no, but here’s hoping that he can at least deliver a great album with some replay value. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Moving forward, perhaps Ghostface can refine his technique within the Narrative Rap ‘chamber’ and deliver something with a more compelling plot and stronger performances. Although I’d prefer him to record a new album of ‘punch you in the face just for living’ type of material. Maybe that’s a bit of stretch for a post–Couples Therapy Tony Starks.
As for the RZA, he seems to have finally resigned himself to adulthood, after years of preaching the importance of keeping a youthful spirit through comic books and video games. Unfortunately, what we needed was that brash, arrogant RZA who wanted to shut down the party and give hip-hop a much needed shot in the arm by returning to the basics. Perhaps that would have provided the ‘better tomorrow’ that he pines for.