Last Wednesday night the Wu-Tang Clan made a both long-awaited and unexpected full-cast return with an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, officially announcing a November release for A Better Tomorrow, their sixth full group album and the first since 2007’s somewhat disappointing 8 Diagrams. In a music segment rare for The Daily Show, the shoguns of Shaolin trudged their way through lead single “Ron O’Neal” before actually getting the blood pumping with the Wu-Tang Forever hit “Triumph”. First, though, the group sat for an interview with Stewart centerstage of the 9-man line, genuine in his reverence for the semi-historic event. Anticipation for the new album has been high but details few, which made the Daily Show appearance all the more surprising. In a particularly poignant moment, Stewart asked Raekwon about the biggest challenges in bringing everyone together for the new album, following up with “Or was Chef the biggest challenge?” It’s difficult to know if the moment was an intentional or incidental reference to the latest round of in-fighting among the Crew revolving around Chef’s lack of involvement until late in the project and while I’d like to give Jon Stewart credit for being up on the latest Wu news, I’m leaning towards incidental. The group has had no lack of internal issues, from U-God’s departure in 2004, to Rae and Ghost’s conflicts with RZA around the time of 8 Diagrams, to GZA saying as recently as 2012 that the group “hasn’t been on the same page in years”. Does another wave of greatness await if they’re able to set these differences aside and re-form as a brotherhood?
While as a fan it’s thrilling to see Wu-Tang come back together, one has to wonder if the crew has something left to offer that’s greater than the sum of its parts. During the Wu 3.0 period (beginning roughly with the release of Ghostface’s Fishscale), certain solo efforts, specifically Ghostface’s and Raewon’s Only Built for Cuban Links…II have proven critically and fiscally successful. And there has certainly been no shortage of side ventures like Wu-Tang Meets the Indie Culture, The Hillside Scramblers and Wu-Tang Chamber Music, inside projects like Wu Massacre and the rumored Wu-Tang vs. Shaolin album, and outside the box concepts such as the high-priced ($5m?), single-copy release of The Wu – Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. But is the Wu-Tang really still a 9-member team, or is that a past identity that’s difficult to let go of, better served by its members putting its creative efforts into the newer, more individual projects? Will A Better Tomorrow be more of The W, an entertaining attempt to re-invent and reinvigorate the brotherhood, or will it be more of RZA tirelessly attempting to push the group from behind like 8 Diagrams about which even the group members were critical after its release? For the moment all we have to go on is a single track (available on Soundcloud here), named for the star of 1972’s Super Fly, with a formulaic layout and a canned hook. The live performance of the song certainly left something to be desired – over-powering backing vocals, not knowing one’s verse, Ghost (it is a new song…), and a general feeling of stifled energy. Perhaps the group simply needs to get their performance legs back under them for by the time Inspectah Deck was ripping through “Triumph” the energy had definitely moved up a notch. And in listening to “Ron O’Neal” later on, I have this say: it’s pretty good, Ghostface goes in, and though a bit blasé the hook does work, but the song’s simplicity hints at an underlying lack of inspiration and if it’s the best track on the album we’re in trouble.
Meth said in the interview that when they “came together for [the] one common cause [of A Better Tomorrow], we knew what we were doing was something different and something great”. Clearly looking to do something different, to reach someone different, the image of the group spread across the Daily Show stage was a site to behold, and the Wu presented themselves as a unified front, not entirely sure of where tomorrow would take them but seemingly ready to put in the work. We’ll have to wait until November to see what kind of Tomorrow it will be.
Watch the full interview and performance here.