RZA / Photos by Kyle Kramer
Last night, Noisey editors Kyle Kramer and Drew Millard fulfilled their high school fantasies as enormous Wu-Tang Clan fans and found their way into a small listening party for the new Wu-Tang Clan album, A Better Tomorrow, at Quad Studios in Times Square. These are their impressions, along with the tracklist and more information about the album.
Kyle: I’m still full from our trip to the Times Square Red Lobster last night after the listening party. How are you doing?
Drew: I’m pretty sure Red Lobster cooks literally everything they serve in a vat of butter. Maybe the lobsters are even swimming in butter. At 25, I am definitely too old to binge eat at chain restaurants without any consequences. But when you’re casually making small talk with U-God and mention that you’re going to Olive Garden only to have U-God respond, “Fuck that! Go to Red Lobster!” you do it. I would never let U-God down. If U-God told me to jump off a bridge, I’d do it. I once listened to a Hillside Scramblers album.
Kyle: Dude, I bought the U-God solo album Mr. Xcitement, which was so memorable I just had to Google what it was called. Its Wikipedia page shockingly says it went gold, but the RIAA database unsurprisingly does not confirm this. Shouts out to whoever edits U-God’s Wikipedia page.
Drew: Plot twist: U-God definitely edits his own Wikipedia page.
Left to right: Masta Killa, U-God, and RZA
Kyle: Anyway, last night U-God also wished us, the listeners, to “have a better tomorrow” and told us, you and me specifically, that he would have to perform the album live to know what his favorite track was. That’s our exclusive interview scoop. Our other exclusive interview scoop is that we talked to Masta Killa for a while and told him about our respective times at Wu-Tang live shows being our favorite live shows. He told us about getting everyone together to record the album, which was “difficult but not impossible,” that his favorite song was either “Felt” or “Miracle,” and that, besides RZA, he was probably the member who was around the most.
Drew: The other exclusive interview scoop is that Masta Killa has family in South Carolina. Also, RZA tapped me on the shoulder and said, “What up, kid,” to which I said, “Hi RZA!” like an idiot as he walked past me and spaghetti burst out of my pockets.
Kyle: In my notes I wrote that you looked like a muppet because your mouth was open in shock.
Drew: Anyway, I think we should discuss the actual sound of the record. My theory is that this is sort of Wu-Tang’s play to establish themselves as festival headliners. They’re absolutely incredible live, and if OutKast can headline every single festival in America, then god damn it, so should Wu-Tang. By releasing an album, they’re basically saying, “Hey, we still exist, we are worth caring about, and this is a cohesive document that proves we’re all on the same page. Can we headline Coachella now?”
Kyle: Even though they rule, I’m not entirely sure Wu-Tang Clan will ever be quite to the pop level of headlining Coachella—they played a couple festivals as second-tier headliners this past summer—but this album is definitely something that will shore up their base. There’s a part on “Pioneer the Frontier” where GZA (I think—except for the final few tracks, when I was in the control room, it was hard to make out voices) raps “this is what y'all wanted back / classic Wu, RZA track,” which I think is spot-on. Wu-Tang is for the children, but it is mostly for the adults who are nostalgic and who just want a solid, gimmick-free rap album and who thought 8 Diagrams was too experimental (personally, that’s probably my favorite Wu album after 36 Chambers, but I know that's an unpopular opinion).
Drew: That’s heresy—everybody knows the best Wu-Tang group album is the one-disc version of Wu-Tang Forever that exists in every Wu fan’s head. But yeah, Wu-Tang is definitely for the adults at this point. We were on the young side of the crowd at the listening party, and RZA was visibly annoyed with the very young engineer who couldn’t figure out how to turn on RZA’s mic. Bobby Digital eventually took over for the poor kid, and we got to watch RZA engineer his own levels on the fly. He seems the most invested in this project of anybody in the Clan—only he, U-God, and Masta Killa showed up to the listening party despite the invitation boasting the entire Wu would be there; Masta Killa admitted to us that this was his first time hearing the album the whole way through; and at one point we watched RZA stand with his arm around U-God rapping U-God's verses as Golden Arms himself stood bemusedly beside him.
Kyle: Here is a sideways Vine I took of Masta Killa and RZA rapping along to Method Man, who, on the theme of old versus young, has a line that goes “Young’un, I can see your draws, pull your pants up” on “Ruckus in B Minor”:
Drew: I’m glad that Method Man is still maintaining stances on the important issue of pants in hip-hop: Do they sag too much? Are they too tight? Not tight enough? What I’m saying is it’s almost weirdly old-school to complain about someone’s pants these days.
Kyle: That song is out now, so you can listen for yourself, but I thought it was one of the stronger cuts. It features the whole Clan, including a sample of ODB, which is one nice thing about this album: Even though it’s RZA’s baby, everyone is present quite a bit, including Ghost and Rae, despite all the reports of tension with those guys. The last track is called “Wu Tang Reunion,” and it’s upbeat and sounds fun and was one of my personal highlights. I think that’s kind of the mood of the album—happy to be back, in whatever context.
Drew: Nostalgia is definitely a theme of this record. The Wu quotes their famous lines on a few occasions, and the final few tracks with the record have a definite classic soul vibe, like if Curtis Mayfield had a flow and was up on his divine mathematics.
Kyle: Yeah, the last quarter of the record is definitely the best, and “A Better Tomorrow” is the undeniable standout track, with some really pretty synths and Method Man and Cappadonna rapping about reparations (excellent back-to-back rhyme: “reparations / the Bush administration”). “Never Let Go” samples Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which sounds like maybe a bad idea on paper but actually works pretty well. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Wu as a whole this political?
Drew: The Wu are definitely political here, and there is a healthy dose of wokeness—which is different from being political, just trust me on this—present in this album as well. Ghostface raps about Ebola, Method Man has the couplet, “Ignorance is lethal / We must touch hearts souls of the people,” and U-God, bless his heart, raps about how you shouldn’t drop the soap in prison (this immediately goes into the pantheon of awkward U-God lines, which also includes, “Please don’t hug me / bug me / I’m ugly when I fuck” and the entirety of “Black Shampoo”). All in all, this was an enjoyable experience and not at all as weird as the time R. Kelly performed Black Panties live in a studio to me and a large number of middle-aged urban radio programmers.
Kyle: Agreed. I appreciated that it was a really modest event. Because what ever happened to just making it about the music, man? Anyway, I will almost certainly listen to A Better Tomorrow between four and 36 more times in each of my apartment’s chambers once it comes out. And I will always at least consider eating at Red Lobster when I’m in Times Square. Thanks, U-God.
Tracklist for A Better Tomorrow, out December 2
1. Ruckus In B Minor
3. 40th Street Black / We Will Fight
4. Mistaken Identity
5. Hold the Heater
6. Crushed Egos
7. Keep Watch
9. Preacher's Daughter
10. Pioneer the Frontier
12. Ron O’Neal
13. A Better Tomorrow
14. Never Let Go
15. Wu-Tang Reunion