“Brother, I think that necklace is causing you too much trouble,” the female speaker advises amidst a gun firing and Spaghetti Western sound bytes.

On “Necklace,” a classic Wu- sounding posse cut produced by frequent collaborator, 4th Disciple, Cappadonna, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and GZA go in; proceeding to brag about the chains they wear around their necks despite the trepidation felt by the young woman.

Unfortunately, that feeling of apprehension wasn’t limited simply to the samples on Wu-Tang Clan’s first album in seven years. Animosity and tumult surrounded A Better Tomorrow ‘s recording process; citing creative differences and at one point, question marks proliferated as to whether or not Raekwon would even be a part of it.

Thankfully for us RZA and Rae made nice, and after numerous delays a release date was finally set.

A Better Tomorrow takes off with RZA summoning the legendary aesthetics of the prolific Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), warning an anonymous listener,“After all these years, what you said was true. The Shaolin and the Wu-Tang is very dangerous.” A welcoming, maniacal laugh and proclamation from none other than Ol’ Dirty Bastard fills the sound waves as the track erupts into a gunshot laden organ outbreak.

On the excellently titled, “Ruckus in B Minor,” the de facto leader is right: Wu-Tang Clan do indeed sound dangerous and deliver a whopping seven verses to prove it. Inspectah Deck furiously spits pop culture references over RZA and Rick Rubin’s scrupulous production while GZA paints vividly poetic images immersed in art and existentialism,

“Form circles like the rings of Saturn/ Dust, rocks and ice in a particular pattern/ Then this fascinating picture has emerged from surface/ A wonder of the young world with an urgent purpose.”

From U-God’s tumbling flow to Method Man’s smooth bridge; even after twenty years, the Wu still got it.

The momentum continues on the fantastic yet somber, string-filled, “Felt.” Heavy verses from Masta Killa, Cappadonna, Ghostface and Method Man see them spilling their guts over past triumphs, tribulations and what the future holds; fraught with allusions, including Jesus’ moment of wavering faith and Cappadonna’s incarceration.

While the work’s production boasts an array of sounds and genres, A Better Tomorrow is at its best and most engaging when it evokes the past; utilizing the oriental ambience they’ve become so well known for with tracks like aforementioned “Necklace,” “Pioneer the Frontier,” and single, “Ron O’Neal.”

However, the latter reveals the glaring crack in the armor of A Better Tomorrow: the guest hooks.

One can begin to understand Raekwon’s reluctance to join the project after hearing the opening of a track like “Miracle,” a complete sonic departure from anything Wu. Collaborator, Nathaniel, belts out the chorus like a Disney prince accompanied by his princess in a forest of talking animals, his diction dripping with sing song melodrama.

A group that once brought the ruckus seems to be scoring uplifting children’s cartoons with this hook; quite disappointing given the great verses that surround it. The chorus alone propels “Miracle” into the realm of unlistenable.

It’s difficult to say how A Better Tomorrow will impact the legacy of Wu-Tang Clan. Among these commercialized hooks, hip hop sustenance does in fact shine through. RZA recently stated that he’s not in the same creative space as he was in the 90’s and that’s very clear here. The progression of an artist’s sound reveals musical talent, I’m just not sure some of these progressive pop by-products fit the Clan’s philosophy.

Regardless, while A Better Tomorrow may have its hiccups, the work still maintains some of the unique ferocity and hunger we’ve grown to love from our favorite Kung-fu obsessed rap icons.

Is it as essential as 36 Chambers? Certainly not, but for Wu faithfuls, there’s still something to be excited for.

Featured image courtesy of  Warner Music and Danilo)