This is the fourth and final in a series of articles I'll be writing this week about one of my all-time favorite MCs, The Genius a.k.a The GZA. He'll be performing live at First Avenue (w/Killer Mike) on 9.20.12 performing "Liquid Swords" Live! RSVP NOW! He's also working on a new set of albums dedicated to different scientific theories, starting with "Dark Matter"...the legend of the Genius continues... Read the "Words From The Genius" Review HERE, "Liquid Swords" Review HERE and the "Beneath The Surface" Review HERE!
One can reasonably guess that GZA made note of the imperfections of “Beneath The Surface” and put forth an effort to correct them with “Legend Of The Liquid Sword”. He doesn’t achieve this wholly, but it results in a better album regardless. There’s plenty more GZA on the album. In fact, for the first time since his debut in ’91, he has several songs with three verses from himself. The guest appearances are more concentrated…for the most part. Even the album title itself suggests that he was determined to deliver an album more focused, with its reference to his most classic yet, “Liquid Swords”.
Besides the intro there are no skits. On one hand, that is a bit unfortunate because I think that on “Beneath The Surface” GZA proved that he knew how to make a quality skit. All he needed to do was better blend them into the album flow. Then again, most skits on albums are filler that but become a distraction after a few listens. In any event, the intro channels the vibe of the skits on “Liquid Swords”. Only this time it’s original material with GZA’s son providing us with the basics to his fathers legacy as he fashioned the Staten Island Ferry into his personal Battleship, traveling into the other boroughs to engage in rhyme wars. This leads us in to “Auto Bio” where the GZA further details and elaborates on those adventures and the other key experiences that shaped what was originally just another hungry MC into a Genius.
“Did Ya Say That” is among the best the album has to offer. The track, produced by BOOLA, is very well composed*. There’s a piano with a slight imperfect loop, moody organs, a nice warm bassline that sits perfect between everything and an excellent steel drum percussion breakdown used minimally for maximum effect. Vocally, the thing that most caught my attention is the hook. It features GZA using his voice differently, in a more playful and accented manner than usual. I found much appreciation in this because on “Words From The Genius” he showed that he had a good sense of humor, something he also showcases a few years earlier than “Did Ya Say That” with his appearance in the 200 Cigarettes movie with Bill Murray. Previously, his demeanor on Wu-tang songs had been fairly serious and grim, but here he sounds relaxed and loosened up. This is certainly fitting since this album is heavily touching on his Old School roots, dating back to the late 70s and early 80s, perhaps getting in that mind-state brought forth the spirit of All In Together Now days. The rhyming is also sharp, with classic GZA styled imagery, creative rhyme patterns, and charisma. It’s a formula that continues to work and as GZA says, “A strong following with a die hard supportedly (?)/The loyalty came from the songs that went accordingly/I couldn’t be more wrong if I changed the format/Did something different from the most explored rap!” He expounds on his lyrical legacy in the verse’s closing moments, “I still run into students banging my first joint/Wrote an essay on my second LP to prove a point*/That a rhyme is a terrible thing to waste/Gimmicks and radio the god don’t chase/But I’ll replace your wackness, it shows in your flows/immatureness, all your holes, case closed/Most of the strength is in the pocket of your clothes/That you’re endorsing in all your rhymes like it’s garments and robes!”
“Silent” features Ghostface and Streetlife who both give solid verses, but GZA remains the star. GZA leaves a few scattered blank spots and incomplete thoughts in his verse, which I assume are in line with the song title’s reference to silence. His inclusion of this technique makes me wish he would have fleshed out the concept more and either did this solo or had the guest MCs following the theme. However, the biggest issue with this track is the monotony of the beat. It’s produced by Bink and it sounds like they just rocked it straight off a beat tape without any specific song arrangement.
“Knock, Knock” is the primary single for the album and it revisits the winning formula of “Breaker, Breaker” of a catchy-bouncy beat with a strong hook. Lyrically, GZA focuses his sights on the importance of well-written scripts and in contrast, those that could use some assistance, “Extra long verses, 100 bars in length/The percentage of truth in the rhyme is one-tenth/A solid mass of minerals easily broke down/Hardrock MCs, you’re nothing but compound/Sparked by the endless greed of CEOs/In the videos with those questionable flows/Take your 26, cut it down to 4 bars, make it a hook/If it’s not all the strongest in the book!”** After his criticism of others he returns in the second verse to lead by example, which he prefaces with, “Great things satisfy great minds/You want me to paint scenes? Describe it in eight lines…” What follows is a accurate depiction of his writing skills that comes to a close with a perfect question to re-introduce the hook, “Victorious always, because I am who!?”
“Stay In Line” is the first song on the album produced by Arabian Knight, who you might recall as a heavy contributor to “Beneath The Surface”. With four tracks on this album, he racks up the most production credits. “Stay In Line” is an up-tempo joint with an Alternative Rock feel. It doesn’t sound as good on an IPOD or small stereo as it does up loud in the car. That is mainly because without the full range of dynamics it highlights the fact that the beat is fairly monotonous. There are small examples of subtle changes that show the potential if only a little more attention had been paid to the arrangement. A few of the tracks show that arrangement isn’t Arabian Knight’s strong point, although he has quality beats. The hook is sung by Santi White, whom I just discovered is Santigold and this could quite possible be her debut as a singer***. Vocally, it’s another quality showing by GZA. With a minimal remix this could have been a nice contender for a second single/video.
“Animal Planet” is another testament to the metaphoric mastery of the GZA a la “Labels” and “Publicity”, but this isn’t the third in that series, that is reserved for later in the album. On “Animal Planet” GZA artfully utilizes metaphors and personifications to liken the animal instincts of man to their true animal counter-parts in nature. I have always wondered if this song was self-inspired by his line in “Auto Bio”, “The violence of nature had triggered the violence of man”. The beat is produced by Tyquan Walker and I don’t recognize him as having any other credits beyond this. It’s a nice beat and particularly effective in its arrangement, something that I’ve mentioned lacking a few times on this album (on most Rap albums truthfully). There’s not a wealth of change-ups, just a few choice things that when they are sprinkled in keep the track sounding refreshing and when timed appropriately also accent key lyric moments. I’m curious to what else Tyquan might have had in his beat arsenal.
Once again, Mathematics provides the track that best captures the Wu-tang sound with “Fam Members Only”. Not to hark on it, but the beat is a bit repetitive. It’s not until the GZA verse where some slight alterations are explored. Apparently recognizing the WU essence of the beat, the song features RZA and Masta Killa. RZA actually has two verses on the track. His first is more like his Bobby Digital persona, but when he returns after the break he’s armed with intelligence. Masta Killa is the only MC to appear on every GZA solo album in the official WU years (’93-Present)**** and he never disappoints. In fact, every time he appeared on a GZA album or anywhere else for that matter I wondered when he would finally have his own solo album. It was still a couple years later from here before he finally released the excellent “No Said Date”.
The album’s title track has a couple items of intrigue and applied skills involved. First, it is a collaborative effort between GZA and Jaz-O, who provides the beat, which is solid and interesting, yet I can’t help but think about the possibilities of a vocal collaboration between these two. They are both masters of grimy crime stories. When I first heard they were working together I envisioned a dark story with each MC representing different characters that I guessed would be pretty epic. When I mentioned that to GZA he said that is something he could possibly see happening in the future…or something like that. This song is actually pretty good, except, to be quite blunt, I hate the singing chorus. I’m not a huge fan of singing hooks so in order for it to work for me it needs to be pretty phenomenal sounding. It sounds a bit like they are trying to recapture the vibe of Wu-Tang’s “Back In The Game” with Ronald Isley (released just a year prior to this on the “Iron Flag” album). However, it doesn’t reach that level. Also, another thing of personal taste is that even though I’m fine with Hip Hop and R&B fusions when done well, I like to keep some separation. Case in point, it annoys me when singers try to hard to be Hip Hop or sing with too much slang. I don’t know why it just sounds wrong to my ears 95% of the time. If you replace that chorus with a solid hook, perhaps from Jaz-O or GZA himself, this could have been one of my favorite tracks on the album, as GZA is doing some great rhyming. Instead it was a song that I completely forgot all about until writing this*****.
“Fame” is the true third addition to the “Labels” and “Publicity” legacy. This time he weaves the names of various celebrities together to construct a loose story-like concept. The fact that the wide subject matter gives him so much more material to work with allows GZA to deliver what is probably the best example of this style. I imagine many probably won’t agree with that. However, the comparisons and metaphors are coming at a noticeably more rapid rate and he’s more often able to employ more creative usages of the style. It’s true that there are some cliché’ and/or arguably corny uses as well, but those are merely the conjunction phrases that act as the bridges from one inventive thought to the next.
If you are not up on your late 80s Rap classics you might miss the somewhat hidden concept of “Highway Robbery”. You don’t however need to understand the underlying theme to enjoy the song, even without it the track is quite enjoyable for it’s colorful braggadocio and head-smacking battle rhymes. However, those in the know will recognize that the song’s reference to “Robbery” is being exercised by GZA through out the whole song as he conceptually borrows very heavily from Big Daddy Kane classic verses by re-using a variety of word choices, phrasing, and cadences. You’ll find these breadcrumbs scattered through out, “MC step to me”, “That’s a wrong move”, “Competition we devour”, and “You better be ready…” or the use of words like “Raw”, “Dogfood”, & “Victory”. Among the most obvious references are all in the second verse and each inspired by the second verse of Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin.” GZA’s “How come so much Rap S**t sounds so similar/Is it confusing for you to remember the/Originator…” is a reworking of Kane’s, “You have MCs coming out sounding so similar/It’s quite confusing for you to remember the/Originator…” GZA’s, “Rolled L’s are lit, my spear starts to hit/Strange translations of words of wit” is in reference to Kane’s, “Braincells are lit, ideas start to hit/Next the formation of words that fit”. Finally, GZA’s, “So think about it when you’re trying to flow/When you want to step to us I think you should know!” is pretty much a direct quote of Kane’s, “Think about it if you’re trying to go/When you wanna step to me I think you should know!” There might be some other hidden gems, but those are the ones that immediately grabbed my attention.
“Luminal” is produced by DJ Muggs and I believe it was their second collaboration together that eventually led to their “Grandmasters” album. GZA returns to one of his greatest strengths of writing crime stories, but this time rather than the usual street hood tale of the inner city, he outlines the activities of a serial killer in a small town. It’s songs such as “Luminal” that truly reveal the writing acumen of the GZA.
“Sparring Minds” is joint effort with Inspectah Deck and it also has a bit of a WU vibe to it courtesy of the Arabian Knight this time. The minimal beat gives a lot of breathing room for GZA and the Rebel INS to get raw and they respond accordingly.
“Rough Cut” is the only song that I would consider a filler track on the album. I guess GZA is trying to maintain the act of having one song on his album the he doesn’t appear on. I think that theory would be best utilized if he was finding new young MCs whose verbal intricacies are worthy of his level of writing like he found with Killah Priest with “B.I.B.L.E”, rather then just random WU affiliates. That’s not to hate on the featured MCs, they are all good, but not mind-blowing. Armel does actually appear to make his debut here and has the stand out verse. The other featured MCs are Prodigal Sonn (Sunz Of Man) and 12 O’Clock who have both involved with the WU Fam from the mid 90s at least. At least in this case GZA does appear on the hook.
The album closes with “Uncut Material” which is produced by GZA. It’s another solid collection of verses over a simple beat that serves purpose. The hook is a rewritten version of the “Shadowboxing” chorus from “Liquid Swords”, only this time when he is asked if he would like to demonstrate something he offers, “Why not”, instead of “I’d rather not” and I think that hits on a important part of this album. The GZA seemed more comfortable in tapping into all of his creative sources and sides of his personality which enable him to try different styles of delivery, slightly expand the subject matter, detail his history, reveal some of his inspirations, and still finish an album that featured more GZA rhyme for rhyme than ever since “Words From The Genius”. As a result, The GZA is worthy of many accolades for his dedication to his craft. I challenge you to find many MCs, if any, who have been rhyming since the 70s and are still as lyrically prolific and potent as the GZA. He is unquestionably among a most rare breed of true lyricists.
Although I’m not covering “Grandmasters” or “Pro Tools” in this series, both feature writing for the GZA that prove he is still worthy of praise and I’m looking forward to what he offers next with “Liquid Swords 2” with the RZA and “Dark Matter”, his collaboration with the scientific community…
Written By Kevin Beacham
*The song credits song writing credit to Ken Sport and also says it contains elements from “Track 20” by K. Sport. Ken Sport was a producer on the scene around this same time. I don’t know what his “Track 20” beat is so I’m not sure how heavily BOOLA borrowed from Ken Sport’s assumed fairly new track to make this beat.
**I’m not exactly sure what he says in the last line, but “If it’s not all the strongest in the book” is the best I can guess. Most online lyric sites say he says “If not I’m sure to send a book”, but I I’m not willing to accept that and they these same sights have other very clear errors of the song lyrics listed. I’m thinking he is saying if every line doesn’t have purpose (“not all the strongest…”) then cut it down, but he’s also being sarcastic saying that most those MCs verses are only really worth a chorus (“Make it a hook”)...
***The earliest credit I could find online for Santi White is on GZA’s “Beneath The Surface” where on the title track she is given writer’s credit. The hook on that track is sung by RES which leads to the next credit I can find for Santi is being listed as the writer for ten tracks on the RES “How I Do” album. The “Stay In Line” track is the earliest thing I found in a quick search of her actually singing on a track. Perhaps I am incorrect in this or all of this is well-known info, but I’m not as tuned into the R&B world…
****RZA is the closest but on “Beneath The Surface” he only does a hook and not a verse.
*****I am now determined to make a version of this with a different hook.