Talk of a new Wu-Tang Clan album—or albums, technically—started back in 2010, when Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon released collaborative effort Wu-Massacre. The album, which the three agreed was "rushed" by Def Jam in an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of recent releases from Wu-Tang Clan members and collaborators, was merely the beginning and the sign of tracks to come.
"We’re not doing this to save the group," Method Man told MTV upon the release of Wu-Massacre. "We’re a part of the group. This album could have been done by Deck, U-God and GZA. Either/or, it’s still Wu-Tang. The bottom line with this LP, it was something fans always requested. It’s like, what else was we doing? It was a given. Hopefully, we can all get back in the studio and get enough time to really work on an LP.”
It took another four years for the follow-up to 2007's 8 Diagrams to materialize with the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan—and that's not counting The Wu - Once Upon A Time in Shaolin, the "secret" album that's attempting to shift how music is created and consumed.
While A Better Tomorrow is technically the next Wu-Tang full-length studio album and the record that marks their twentieth anniversary, the Clan had been working on The Wu – Once Upon A Time in Shaolin in secret for years, and those songs could easily stay a secret, too. Only one physical copy of the double-album exists, it resides in a handcrafted silver and nickel box and its going rate has exceeded a cool $5 million. (That Kickstarter that fans attempted in order to purchase and leak the album was unsuccessful.)
Though the 31-track album includes some star-studded collaborations (Hi Cher!), those tracks aren't the ones making their way to a wide release, as they'll be reserved exclusively for Shaolin as opposed to A Better Tomorrow.
Last year, both albums saw delays brought about by the disagreements between two Wu-Tang members in particular: RZA and Raekwon. In September, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were noticeably absent from Wu-Tang's disastrous set at Rock the Bells. In the weeks that followed, RZA, the de-facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, would say that he and Raekwon weren't seeing eye-to-eye creatively and that Rae wasn't working on his share of the album. "He hasn't turned in his verses yet," he said in November 2013. "I don't know if he's still trying to find the vibe of the music. We have to talk about it before it becomes too late. But he hasn't come to the table yet." In April, RZA clarified which album fans could expect to hear Raekwon's contributions—and it wouldn't be on A Better Tomorrow.
"There’s an album called Once Upon A Time In Shaolin that will be a single piece of art in a beautiful encasing," he told Vlad TV on the red carpet while promoting Brick Mansions in April 2014. "That belongs in a museum or art gallery. That’s where it belongs. And then there’s another album that belongs to the consumers called A Better Tomorrow. And that belongs to the consumers because it’s a celebration of Wu-Tang and their fans. And Raekwon has not been participating with that particular record. I haven’t had a chance to really talk to him about why not. All I see is the press going back and forth. But I would say that maybe creatively we on different paths. I’m creatively different than I was in the ‘90s.”
Raekwon responded to RZA's comments in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying that he found the album's "Keep Watch" to be "mediocre sh*t," that the rest of the group felt similarly and that the production on the track wasn't up to par with what one should expect from a group two decades into their career.
"I’m still paying attention to what’s going on and an amazing group that’s got so much potential to be bigger than what they are if they just focus and come out with great music," he said in April 2014. "On 'Keep Watch,' you put this new young kid [Nathaniel] on there who nobody knows who he is – and I’m not taking shots at the kid – but I don’t even know who he is.That song is something that the crew didn’t have knowledge of, from what I’m being told. Dudes ain’t feeling good about it."
RZA said that the Wu-Tang Clan on the whole was effected negatively by a group-wide inability to communicate or make A Better Tomorrow a priority: "What we're not doing as brothers and as business brothers is putting in time together."
Hints of a reconciliation popped up in the following weeks, as RZA told Fuse's Esteban Serrano that he did, in fact, want Rae on the record. "I hope that he does become a part of this," he said. "Like I told Raekwon, he has a magic voice. When he raps, it sounds like a record immediately."
RZA got his wish, and the two ended their feud shortly thereafter. A month after they publically aired their grievances, Wu-Tang posted that RZA and Rae were hitting the studio. Together.
Later, when Wu-Tang hit The Daily Show to talk about their reunion with Jon Stewart, RZA stressed the bond that enabled the Clan to bounce back. "I think we all striving for a better tomorrow," he said. "Wu-Tang, we have something in common with each other as a brotherhood, a respect. When we say a better tomorrow, we're striving to make a better tomorrow for ourselves, but also to aspire [towards] a better tomorrow for the world, yo."
Raekwon didn't shy away from discussing the challenges they faced in finishing up the record with all parties involved.
"We trailblazers in the music business," he said. "We been around the world. We doin' our job. I consider this a sport, so I think it's important as an athlete of music to make sure that you got your business together. Make sure you feel happy at whatever you want to do. You just gotta feel good about it and know that at the end of the day, you got your I-es dotted and T-es crossed in business, because we have families. We go out there and we work. My thing is, if I'm not going to see my children, and I'm out here doing a job, I think it's important for me to go out there, do what I say I'm going to do, get back home to them and hit up Disneyland."
Despite the up-in-the-air status of Raekwon's involvement, Wu-Tang Clan released the first single from A Better Tomorrow in March, "Keep Watch." It'd be a few months (y'know, that whole RZA-vs.-Raekwon debacle we outlined above) before the next single, "Ron O'Neal," would surface in August when the Clan performed it on The Daily Show. With November came "Ruckus in B Minor" via Funkmaster Flex's show on Hot 97.
While A Better Tomorrow will be available via Warner Music on December 2, RZA showed off a new contraption, the Boombot Rex 20th Anniversary Wu-Tang Edition, that blasts tracks from the new album. The tiny gizmo, the product of a partnership with Boombotix, unleashes eight of A Better Tomorrow's tracks with the mere push of a button, and the pre-sale of the gadget sold out its 1,000 units in a matter of hours. If fans can't get their hands on the ornate packaging of Shaolin, they're apparently okay with snatching up the portable Boombot.
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"