Illustrator: Caleb Kuhl.
Released along with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin -- their locked-down, $5 million dollar, single-copy album-as-art release -- A Better Tomorrow is further proof that, in 2014, the Wu-Tang Clan are a concept or collective led by RZA, and not necessarily a group. Their previous 2007 effort, 8 Diagrams, was the first clue that things would never be the same post-Ol' Dirty Bastard, but they could be quite good, excellent even, as long as one doesn't expect the lean, mean Shaolin machine of the past. Like 8 Diagrams, A Better Tomorrow seemed quite unlikely to see release with key member Raekwon being a vocal holdout, and here, the festival circuit, post-ODB Wu-Tang rolls on with little of that holdout's help. Member Ghostface Killah is here less than usual as well, and when he's in control of a cut, be brings in his frequent solo collaborator Adrian Younge, like on "Crushed Egos," but it's a highlight where RZA dives in fully, as if Ghostface's noir LP Twelve Reasons to Die was a co-branded Bobby Digital effort. Insiders and longtime fans will get the drift, while everyone else has the group's early albums for an intro, but solid, crossover appeal still comes in the form of the singles "Keep Watch" (a supreme, electro-powered Wu-Robot), "Ron O'Neal" (an organic, Roots-flavored funkster), and "Ruckus in B Minor" (a punchy history of the group with Rick Rubin adding some "99 Problems"-styled co-production). Backing up these frontline stunners are weighty album cuts like "Miracle," where the group go big, ballad, and emo, which causes Ghostface to confess "since mama died, I never wild out," then the rickety "Necklace" successfully adds indie rap to the LP's many flavors, along with some venom and teeth. RZA executive produces to perfection, and somehow, orders this diverse, 15-song track list into a sensible flow. Don't call it a comeback, call it a collective, or a compilation from solo artists who sound enthused to be back with an especially inspired RZA as ringleader. ~ David Jeffries