Liquid Swords, GZA

Liquid Swords, GZA

Geffen, 1995

Before being a member of the Wu Tang Clan and associating with his cousin RZA, previously known as Prince Rakeem, GZA already had the right to a first try in 1991 with Words from the Genius, which he released under the name The Genius. He is the only member of the mythical Wu-Tang who had the right to have a contract with a record company, and a first album, before the release of the mythical Enter The Wu-Tang. However, although the album was largely produced by the talented Easy Mo Bee, the record company, Cold Chillin, did not promote the album, which naturally resulted in a commercial failure.

Was The Genius lacking in talent? The future tells us no. Even though the rapper’s lyrical talents were already identified, the album’s artistic direction did not allow GZA to fully express himself. I even think that the record company imposed some of the content to the rapper, resulting in raunchy songs like Come Do Me, although some lyrical prowess was already present on the album.

A year later, GZA joined with Ol Dirty Bastards the group freshly founded by his cousin RZA, the aptly named Wu Tang Clan. The ten members of the group will sign on Loud Records, which will leave them free hands in the artistic direction to make the rough and hardcore music they always wanted to make.

Upon the release of the mythical Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), fans and fellow Hip Hop don’t understand what’s going on. A group of ten thirsty and angry emcees, never seen before in rap. They are going to revolutionize Hip Hop with a filthy and terribly rough sound, properly gangsta and hardcore. The success will be immediate with an impact on the New York rap for the next years. The gangsta rap made in New York was reborn. The soldiers of the Wu Tang empire are on the march. The group is about to conquer the rap game and install its domination.

Following this album, each member of the group is free to sign wherever he wishes. This is how a first wave of solos arrived for the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, all produced by RZA. GZA chooses Geffen, and comes fourth in this wave after Method Man, Ol Dirty Bastard and Raekwon. Even if each one will have an approach and a concept of his own, the trademark of Wu Tang remains intact. We can see the evolution of RZA’s productions in the solo albums, so we approach something more mature musically with this fourth opus of the Genius.

Compared to Tical, the first album of the wave by Method Man, which had a dirty and raw sound, RZA’s productions are cleaner, although still dark. RZA uses more soul samples, especially on Cold World and its chorus, and keyboards, like on Duel Of The Iron Mic with this little piano line as deadly as the Genius’ lyrics. From the intro Liquid Swords, we hear a young child describing his father as an executioner samurai who killed for the empire. The tone is given. GZA will have a malicious pleasure to highlight the lyrical weakness of his competitors on this first intro track. The samples of Kung Fu movies give the album a threatening atmosphere in a sinister and gloomy tone.

RZA gives a dramatic and gritty feel to the album, always with very slow beats incorporating little violin hits and penetrating bass, like a movie theme, also found on Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx. Meanwhile, GZA will slice and dice his opponents mercilessly, his lyrics are as skillful as they are sharp with metaphors and alliterations. It includes a sophisticated vocabulary and multiple references, including philosophical, scientific, Asian culture of martial arts and chess games, like the cover. We also find references to crimes, depicting the streets of New York in a dark and austere atmosphere. The more you listen to the album the more you find hidden and misunderstood references.

GZA, Killah Hills 10304

There’s no need for us to spray up the scene
I use less men, more powerful shit for my team
Like my man, Muhammad from Afghanistan, grew up in Iran
The nigga runs a neighborhood newsstand
A wild Middle Eastern bomb specialist
Initiated at eleven to be a terrorist
He set bombs in bottles of champagne
And when niggas popped the cork, niggas lost half they brains
Like this ex-worker, tried to smuggle a half-a-key in his left leg
Even underwent surgery
They say his pirate limp gave him away

The drama and cinematic feel of the album is also felt in GZA’s performance, with a lot of storytelling, especially on Killah Hills 10304, narrating a drug deal. The Genius adopts a precise and calm flow in perfect harmony with the beats, as well as the themes addressed. But GZA has the perfect atmosphere to illustrate himself and tell his stories. RZA imparts a gritty beat with angsty guitars and surging stops that give way to the rumbling bass causing ominous jolts. Then Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and RZA join him on the mic on 4th Chamber for sharp vocal assaults that exude confidence. The duet with Method Man on Shadowboxin is probably one of the greatest demonstrations of emceeing I’ve ever heard. The two rappers masterfully pose over a loop cover of Ann Peebles’ Trouble Heartaches & Sadness.

Liquid Swords is considered a masterpiece of the New York rap renaissance. Probably one of the most accomplished solo of the Wu-Tang with very worked productions by RZA. Even if GZA is perhaps not the most charismatic of the Wu, his lyrical intelligence is impressive and surpasses his Wu-Tang companions, he is definitely the master of words of the Staten Island group. The Genius plunges us into his martial and philosophical universe with his multiple references, using the microphone like a sword with which he cuts the rhymes without mercy. He definitely won this chess game.

By Grégoire Zasa

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