For a group with a new album called “A Better Tomorrow,” the Wu-Tang Clan sure is thinking a lot about yesterday.
Take the opening track, “Ruckus in B Minor,” a clear reference to this New York hip-hop crew’s groundbreaking 1993 debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” which began with “Bring Da Ruckus.” Or listen to Masta Killa, one of Wu-Tang’s nine rappers, warning you in “Felt” not to forget “the first time you heard ‘Protect Ya Neck,’” another important cut from the earlier record.
“Check the ID / Wu-Tang — that’s a legacy,” the MCs insist in “Mistaken Identity,” before a sampled voice in “Crushed Egos” says: “You practice 20 years? You must be extremely good.”
There’s more — including that the album’s title recycles the name of a track from 1997 — but you get the picture: Wu-Tang, once hip-hop’s most visionary act, has seemingly entered its retrospective phase.
Except hold up: “A Better Tomorrow,” Wu-Tang’s first studio disc since 2007’s “8 Diagrams,” is just one part of a flurry of activity that suggests these veterans are staging a comeback even as rap has irrevocably shifted around them.
Ghostface Killah, one of the group’s most visible members, has a strong solo album due out Tuesday. There’s a new book, “The Dirty Version,” about the life and riotous times of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Wu-Tang star who died in 2004.
And in addition to “A Better Tomorrow,” Wu-Tang has completed a second album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” that it plans to sell in a fine-art-inspired limited edition of one. (RZA, the group’s mastermind, says he’s been offered $5 million for it.)
This concentrated output comes as something of a surprise, given how diffuse the group has become. In contrast to the days when the rappers lived and worked together in a spot known as the Wu Mansion, they’re scattered now from New York to Los Angeles, where RZA has carved out a successful sideline as an actor, composer and director. Next year Method Man, Wu-Tang’s resident charmer, will appear alongside Amy Schumer and Daniel Radcliffe in Judd Apatow’s latest comedy, “Trainwreck.”
There have also been disagreements about the group’s creative direction, disputes that kept “A Better Tomorrow” from being released (as was originally intended) in time to mark the 20th anniversary of the group’s debut.
In April, Raekwon told Rolling Stone he hated “Keep Watch,” the lead single from “A Better Tomorrow.” Later, he said the production on the album, most of it by RZA, “could have been grimier.”
Compared with what rules rap radio today though, this record is grimy — deeply so. Indeed, Wu-Tang has never seemed more removed from the hip-hop mainstream than it does now, at a moment when young digital sensualists like Drake, Future and Young Thug are expanding the music by making room for new textures and emotions.
That’s not to say that Wu-Tang isn’t expanding too. To the avowed irritation of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, RZA largely relies here (as he did on “8 Diagrams”) on live instrumentation rather than the sampled beats that defined “Enter the Wu-Tang.” Some of the material was recorded in Memphis, Tenn., where the producer corralled session players known for their work on old records by Al Green and Isaac Hayes.
But “A Better Tomorrow” still oozes the minor-key menace for which the group is known; it’s unmistakably a Wu-Tang project, with tinkling pianos, lumbering grooves and mysterious bits of dialogue lifted from obscure kung-fu movies.
“We keep it rugged / We keep it rough,” they proclaim in “Hold the Heater,” about a guy running from the cops. “We keep it real / We keep it raw.”
They’re not entirely alone in modern hip-hop for that effort, of course. The New York rapper Action Bronson has emerged recently as an inheritor of Wu-Tang’s proudly rowdy tradition. And amid the gleaming insouciance of his major-label debut last year, ASAP Rocky dropped “1 Train,” a gritty cut plainly modeled on vintage Wu-Tang classics like “Protect Ya Neck.”
Even Drake has a song called “Wu-Tang Forever” — though it’s in part about his having replaced the group at hip-hop’s vanguard.
But perhaps the members of Wu-Tang are OK with ceding their position. As determined as they sound, the rappers on “A Better Tomorrow” aren’t hiding their relatively advanced age; they’re taking up what’s important to them in their mid-40s — and doing so vividly — even if the subject matter confines them to hip-hop’s margins.
“Wanna go home, see my wife and kids,” a voice pleads in “Mistaken Identity,” while “Preacher’s Daughter” is an affectionate riff on “Son of a Preacher Man,” the late-'60s hit by Dusty Springfield. And despite its promise of trouble, “Ruckus in B Minor” — with a co-production credit by Rick Rubin, that bearded avatar of late-career seriousness — finds Method Man most worked up over the way younger guys let their pants sag.
“Can’t even call yourself a man till you man up,” he raps, unfortunately echoing another finger-wagging elder in Bill Cosby, whose denunciations of hip-hop culture earned widespread scorn long before his current crisis.
The flipside of that crankiness, of course, is the good-old-days nostalgia that Wu-Tang gives into throughout “A Better Tomorrow.” And there’s more on Ghostface Killah’s record, “36 Seasons,” which has the rapper Nems quoting a line from Wu-Tang’s early-'90s track “C.R.E.A.M.”
Yet with its crackly, soul-inspired production and its elaborate concept about a guy returning to his neighborhood to find things have changed — hmm — “36 Seasons” is as bracingly unapologetic as “A Better Tomorrow” about adopting a grown-up worldview, the kind hip-hop seldom allows.
For Ghostface, as for all of Wu-Tang, rugged is the easy part. Real is the challenge.