The iconic W distress symbol had been flickering in the sky of a city no longer the undisputed center of the hip-hop universe. But often times, heroes reemerge only to thicken the plot. Though it was rough—the group’s past two years have been dominated by infighting (Raekwon equated his odds of appearing on the album to “climbing up a fuckin’ mountain if you got on slippers”) and pushed release dates (would have dropped last year for the 20th anniversary of the seminal Enter The Wu-Tang)—A Better Tomorrow still meant new music from the Wu-Tang Clan, something that can never be overlooked.

But for all of its 36 Chambers allusions, A Better Tomorrow lacks the nuances and mythos that the world has worshipped since ‘93. There are plenty of standout moments, and several members bring the inspired verses. But A Better Tomorrow leans far closer to 8 Diagrams than the heavily-referenced “Protect Ya Neck,” and while the highs are infectious and the socially conscious verses couldn’t be more timely, the Wu’s chemistry is far removed from the days of Killer tape searches.

Rae consistently expressed his wariness over RZA’s direction, and it’s hard to argue with The Chef on second track “Felt,” which uncomfortably layers guitar strums, a static backdrop and a hymnal choir while letting its beat ride out for a full minute after the last verse. Unfortunately, “Felt” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The sweeping strings and cloying hook of “Mistaken Identity” uncomfortably shifts to a grungy guitar on its narrative verses, and hearing a Wu-Tang Clan song called “Miracle” end on a distorted screamo-like outro makes about as much sense as ODB auto-tuned or GZA trying a triplet Migos flow.

That’s not to say the bad entirely outweighs the good. It’s just more impressionable, given that A Better Tomorrow functions more as a sendoff than a reunion. There are still a number of veritable Wu Bangers. “Crushed Egos” nails the proven formula of dingy chords, a raucous RZA hook and two Raekwon verses laced with criminal slang; “Necklace” creeps through Shaolin shadows with aplomb; singles “Keep Watch” and “Ron O’Neal” succeed as the two most unified and spirited posse cuts. The inconsistency seen throughout A Better Tomorrow also manifests in the Clan itself, where the disparity between contributions is more noticeable than ever. Method Man, who ties Masta Killa for most outings on the album, is in absolute peak form bobbing and weaving between flows that ooze cool before a song-stealing verse on the title track. GZA is equally formidable, buoying an otherwise forgettable “Ruckus in B Minor” with a 16 that begins, “Forms circles like the rings of Saturn / Dust rocks and ice in a particular pattern / Then this fascinating picture has emerged from surface / A wonder of the young world with an urgent purpose.” Ever-consistent Inspectah Deck drops the project’s densest rhyme schemes, and there’s a palpable urgency to each U-God sighting. In contrast, Ghostface Killa’s verses feel rushed and are strangely unmemorable, RZA raps on only a few tracks and Cappadonna’s appearances are incredibly heavy-handed.

A Better Tomorrow” wonderfully captures a country frustratingly searching for answers about the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (“My peoples tired of waiting for reparations to pay us / Screaming Jesus can save us” an impassioned Meth raps before Rae questions the true meaning of “serve and protect.”)

More than two decades in, Wu-Tang Clan no longer has anything to prove, which makes many of the overly-calculated directions of A Better Tomorrow all the more confusing. When the group focuses less on reaffirming legacy and more on simply enjoying each others’ presence, the familiar ruckus ensues. And with a slimmed down tracklist and looser vision, A Better Tomorrow would be a fantastic offering. But as it stands, what could be the last Wu-Tang album ever leaves much to be desired.Steven Goldstein