If you were born in the late 70s and early 80s as I was, there are a few things that will likely make you start to feel kind of old – 2014 not only marks the 21st anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan’s eponymous Enter The 36 Chambers, it also marks the 10th anniversary of Old Dirty Bastard’s tragic and yet not wholly unsurprising death. Also, yesterday marked the release of the legendary ensemble’s much-anticipated effort, A Better Tomorrow through Warner Brother Records — and the album, much like their last few releases has garnered a bit of controversy, which will either deem the album as a mere curiosity and footnote in the group’s history or as one of the more interesting albums the group has released in recent memory. As it stands, the last few albums have been marred by infighting among members of the group — most recently Raekwon has publicly feuded with the RZA over the group’s creative direction as the RZA has become increasingly experimental as a producer and over money. Other members have feuded with the RZA in varying degrees as well, adding to an air of dissension and bitterness that surrounded the group. At times, the feuding was so vicious that it was reported that Raekwon refused to make an appearance on varying albums. Adding to the overall strangeness of the current time, on A Better Tomorrow, the RZA uses a number of Old Dirty Bastard vocal samples, which at times gives a ghostly pallor to the proceedings. Whether or not that’s capitalizing on a desperate sense of nostalgia over what could have been or an artistic way of reminding us of what was lost, will ultimately be determined by Wu-Tang Clan fans.
Adding to the strangeness of the last dewy years, the RZA and cohorts have devised a few revolutionary ways to release their efforts and pay homage to the special, tactile experience of purchasing and listening to a whole album. In fact, their previous effort, Once Upon A Time in Shaolin was recorded in secret and designed to be a museum-worthy piece in an intricately designed silver box, which currently is located in Morocco. Granted, many hip-hop heads found such a method such a delivery method to be insufferably elitist – and I have to admit that I agree with them. But the newest effort sees an even more egalitarian method of distribution – a specially made boom box with several singles off the album, and it can also stream other recorded material through Bluetooth.
Ultimately, music fans will determine where this effort will stand. “Necklace” one of the album’s first singles mangoes to continue the group’s reputation for emcees spinning tales of crime and murder; but on this effort to incredibly moody, minimalist beats paired with twinkling piano keys, and quick bursts of drum rolls that trail off into the ether. And interestingly, the sparse beats make each emcee’s rhymes seem menacing and grimly murderous – street hip-hop paired with the spacey aesthetic of the headphone hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces.
Recently, the ensemble was on The Late Show with David Letterman to perform the newest single off A Better Tomorrow, “Ruckus in B Minor.” Each of the emcees vocals are paired with a ghostly soul sample comprised of eerie organs, old school breakbeats and a throbbing baseline. In some way, the track evokes the classic sound of Enter the 36 Chambers but with a modern twist.