“Miracle” is the worst track the Wu-Tang Clan has ever recorded, and it’s not even a close race. A twinkling, schmaltzy hook about (yes) “miracles” descends every minute or so to interrupt a series of by-the-numbers verses. Masta Killa doesn’t even try: “A live scene theme from a Godfather saga / A Martin Scorsese classic and I’m the author,” he begins, before presumably falling asleep in the recording booth. Ghostface Killah’s verse about Ebola and the FDA closes with a transition into a hard-rock, Linkin Park-style outro, a stylistic choice so unconscionably bad the listener yearns to think of it as satire, parody, or gleeful self-sabotage.
It is not, though. Wu-Tang Clan, particularly the RZA, has always mixed absurdity with deadly seriousness. Everything is a code, a signifier pointing to something that perhaps only the RZA himself understands. This is why even something like the preposterous special effects on the “Triumph” video, or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s proclamation that “Wu-Tang is for the children,” can be read as part of a grand ghetto superhero myth, a story of hip-hop self-actualization to rival Jay Z’s “me, under a lamppost.” ODB may’ve terrified Shawn Colvin to get there, but he was onstage at the Grammys, after all.
A listener, then, needs to take all of A Better Tomorrow’s tiny terrible aesthetic choices very seriously, not because the RZA does—he turned into a self-parody around 2007—but because the entire Wu-Tang story is so self-serious. Where these eccentricities were once paired with music brutal enough to sell them, A Better Tomorrow sounds like Disney Enters The 36 Chambers: Inspectah Deck finishes his traditional album-opening verse with a reference to both The Mentalist and The Big Bang Theory; Method Man draws an unflattering Pusha T comparison over chugging distorted guitars; Mathematics’ beat for “We Will Fight” feels like 2000’s “Gravel Pit” as done by a high-school marching band. Almost every track features a cringe-worthy hook, often by some man named Nathaniel, and the verses feature so many half-assed nods to older lines (“It’s still a cold world,” “When the emcees came, to live out the name…”) that the album begins to feel like what it is: a 20-years-after-the-fact stab at a comeback.
Listened to in sequence, A Better Tomorrow makes sense as the final progression from the Clan’s razor-wire debut into something polished and more hopeful. But as the intervals between all of those records has increased—it’s been seven years since 8 Diagrams, which itself came out six years after Iron Flag—the albums have sounded increasingly estranged from their hip-hop contemporaries. A Better Tomorrow has very little to do with the music of 20 years ago, but it has even less to do with the music of today; it’s completely out of joint, an island of irrelevance forced into being by the labor- and drama-intensive nature of the group. A nine-person crew made every album an event, which manipulated the shrink-wrapped marketplace of the ’90s, but this fussiness doesn’t make sense in the era of the 12-month press cycle and the dead-of-night mixtape release. If there’s a better tomorrow waiting for this group of MCs, it doesn’t involve another album together.