As protests sweep the United States over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, some question whether racial justice will ever be attainable. For the Wu-Tang Clan, the picture is grim, but there may just be hope.
The hip-hop icons have reunited for their first studio album in seven years, “A Better Tomorrow,” in which they grapple forthrightly with police brutality and other social ills, all set to a polished, rhythmic backdrop laced with the New York ensemble’s trademark samples from kung fu movies.
On the title track of the album, which comes out Tuesday, the Wu-Tang Clan invokes the slain Malcolm X as the band urges African Americans to “stand up, stand strong.”
“We want justice / Police supposed to protect and serve / And then they shoot us down like wild animals / The nerve of them cold-hearted killers / With blue suits slaying our black youth / The Earth cries from all the blood that’s being spilled,” the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon raps.
Method Man, another of the eight surviving members of the Clan, condemns the quest for material wealth as “just another trick to enslave us / Push the minimum wages / Put our fathers up in them cages.”
For all the bleakness in the song, the refrain is a disarmingly warm sample from an earlier generation’s protest tune, “Wake Up Everybody” by the Philadelphia soul band Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
The rich voice of Teddy Pendergrass from 1975 sings: “The world won’t get no better / If we just let it be / The world won’t get no better / We got to change it, just you and me.”
The album similarly ends on an upbeat note with “Wu-Tang Reunion” as band leader RZA gives a shout out to “all my Latino brothers, all my Asian brothers, my Caucasian brothers / Wu-Tang Forever.”
– New ‘maturity’ on album –
The album is made all the more poignant by the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Protests erupted nationwide after a grand jury declined to indict the white police officer, Darren Wilson.
“A Better Tomorrow,” however, was in the works well before Ferguson was in the spotlight. Wu-Tang Clan members have mentioned the album since 2011.
They initially thought of releasing it for the group’s 20th anniversary in 2013, but a feud between Raekwon and RZA helped hold up production.
The album avoids the orchestral sound with which RZA experimented on the previous work, “8 Diagrams,” and opens immediately with a telling flashback — a posthumous sample from Ol’ Dirty Bastard, an original member who died in 2004.
“I will say that you will hear some maturity in our thinking process. It’s a very lyrical album — a lot of stories and vignettes of stories,” RZA told reporters from AFP and other outlets at a listening session for the album at a New York studio.
Other tracks on the album include a tale of a vengeful prosecutor in “Mistaken Identity” and an ode to Ron O’Neal, who played a cocaine-dealing tough guy in the 1972 Blaxploitation film “Super Fly.”
It remains to be seen if “A Better Tomorrow” marks the final chapter from the Wu-Tang Clan. The ensemble has always encouraged side projects, with RZA pursuing an acting career including a role as the rapper Samurai Apocalypse in the sexually-charged television series “Californication.”
But at least one more work exists: “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” a double album of which the Wu-Tang Clan recorded a single copy.
RZA wants the album itself to go on tour, with fans paying to listen in museums and other places, and then to sell the copy — for which he says offers are already in the millions of dollars.