Let Max Bell milk this cow, the best way he knows how
The saga of the long-storied sixth Wu-Tang album, A Better Tomorrow, is documented elsewhere and not worth outlining. Wu-Tang was forever before they put it in writing in ’97 and remain so despite all the recent (and past) turmoil. Thankfully, all remaining Wu members – R.I.P. ODB – put aside undoubtedly still-lingering grievances and appeared on The Daily Show Wednesday night to promote A Better Tomorrow, now ostensibly due out in November, and perform their new single, “Ron O’neal.”
Sadly, the group’s performance did little to instill confidence in the single or their reunion. With no instrumental version of the song, the four Wu members on the song battled their own vocals. Ghostface didn’t know all the words to his verse. And, as anyone could’ve predicted, RZA appeared to be the only member who seemed enthused to perform new material. While the rest of the Wu bounced with the verve of octogenarians waiting for their turn to bring the ruckus on the shuffleboard court, he made the mic stand his sword, poised to shove it through someone’s navel before ultimately tossing it down. Their collective redemption came in a spirited, albeit truncated performance of “Triumph” just before the credits. So, while this wasn’t close to the travesty that was their 2013 Rock the Bells performance in San Bernardino, it wasn’t the best of all possible scenarios to judge the new single.
Of course, though Stewart announced the single would be available on Itunes at midnight, there was no sign of it when the clock struck twelve on either coast. Then, yesterday afternoon, “Ron O’Neal” appeared online (not Itunes). Yes, the song is real. Unfortunately, it falls short of spectacular.
The two glaring negatives are obvious from the jump. The trite and ineffectual, “grind and get paper” hook smacks of the commercial sheen that marred RZA and GZA’s earliest offerings (see here & here). And the beat, tailored for those intrigued by excessive drums, feels antiseptic. The inimitable Wu griminess is nearly gone, blasted off by the blare of crisp horns, glossed over by poorly executed scratching and a guitar riff that sounds like it was lifted from Santana’s “Maria Maria.” This is the Wu-Tang sound scrubbed clean for those who would rather play the group’s music in Manhattan high-rises and private cars than dank basements choked with blunt smoke. It is the Wu packaged for people who’ve never seen Superfly.
Sonic grievances aside, the song is about as good as can be expected from the Wu in 2014. In terms of delivery, Meth, Deck, Ghostface, and RZA remain as polished as ever. More importantly, everyone, not just RZA, sounds genuinely excited. Method Man takes the point, effortlessly using basketball as a metaphor for rhyme supremacy, homicide, and pimp game like he was going for a triple-double; Deck lays in the dark with the Mossberg, preoccupied with verbal manslaughter; Ghostface deftly rhymes about compatriots snorting cocaine through crazy straws before narrating project hallway murders that necessitate bulletproof pajamas; and RZA recounts his past for the sole purpose of reminding you he’ll drill darts through the grill of a narc without hesitation.
Ideally, “Ron O’Neal” is solely for single purposes and the caliber of lyrics here will be paired with a more authentic Wu sound on the rest of A Better Tomorrow. If that’s the case, the album will be a much more fitting final act than 8 Diagrams. In the best of all possible tomorrows, their likely swan song won’t signify retreat. Instead, it will remind us their unshakeable permanence one last time.