This is the second 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” is not only among the most certified classics in the Wu-Tang catalog, it’s also one of the most widely agreed upon classics in Hip Hop circles, particularly from the ‘90s. A casual glance at a wealth of discussions I’ve been in or witnessed suggest that Hip Hop peoples at large are far better at agreeing on what 80s Hip Hop albums are considered classics than those from the 90s or, to a lesser degree, 00s Hip Hop Classics. I don’t recall ever hearing any such debate about “Liquid Swords”. Then again, why would I expect such? The album is virtually perfect: musically, lyrically, conceptually and co-starring-ly.
The closest thing to a misstep with this album was not including the album lyrics. It’s actually a bit unbelievable. Most everything leading up to it glorified the importance and the potency of the lyrics. In his bio at the time, GZA stated, “Liquid Swords is just about being lyrically sharp with the tongue.” It also later explains that writing “Labels” was a painstaking process that took over a year, some parts existing in his rhyme books for up to two years prior. The last line of the bio simply reads, “More than anything, I love to rhyme.” Referencing back to “Labels”, when it initially dropped Geffen Records sent out a press release (dated 05.25.95) and the lyric sheet for the song with the 12” promos. On 10.03.95 the label issued another press release stating an album release date change for “Liquid Swords” to 11.07.95. Within that statement they quote one of the most powerful lines from the album’s opening song, “Ni**as styles are old like Mark 5 sneakers/Lyrics are weak like clock radio speakers!” It also goes on to say that the album is, “Chock full of clever metaphors and dope rhymes…” After all that, plus the fact that the lyrics were included in his debut album, I was certain the lyrics would be printed in “Liquid Swords”…they were not…too my dismay. Truthfully, GZA should just come out with a book of all his lyrics; every album and choice guest appearances, and call it “Words From The Genius”…
Although, much of the talk and focus on the album leading up to its release was centered on the high caliber force of GZA’s written words, they are not the only deciding factor in determining its classic stature. “Liquid Swords” features what is arguably RZA’s greatest production on any one album, particularly for his early work. This feat isn’t merely limited to his beats, which are exceptional in their own right, but also considers how the album is structured and arranged. Dialog from the movie Shogun Assassin is strategically placed through out the album to tie the themes together and enhance the dark cinematic feel, which is supported by RZA’s own well-produced skits and sound effects. I can’t say for certain that on its own the song order is the best or completely purposeful, but the means in which the other elements are fixed around the sequencing ultimately define it as ideal.
The album opens with the title track and it somewhat loosely serves as a resume’ for the GZA’s many years of training as a lyricist, briefly touching on events both Pre and Post “Words From The Genius.” The first verse reinterprets his “hidden tape recorders” boast and claim from the title track of his debut album, on “Liquid Swords” he laments, “S**t is too swift to bite, you record and write it down.” His style is slow and rhythmic, but at times becomes exaggerative-ly animated and he evens dons a drunken-slurred style for effect, perhaps also to maintain the low-budget Kung Fu theme of the album. Also, sprinkled in there are his personalized pronunciations that I’m so obsessed with, like how microphone becomes “mic-phone”. In terms of his writing, he gives the best single-bar definition to his name with, “I don’t waste ink/n***a I think!” That immediately conjures an updated image of his debut album cover, this time with him sitting, looking older, wiser, less-cartoonish, more intimidating, as he contemplatively and conservatively adds text into his rhyme pages. Such moments give birth to stark visual imagery, like him detailing the entrance into his musical chamber, “It’s a wide entrance, small exit like a funnel/So deep it’s picked up on radios in tunnels.”
The final verse of “Living In The World Today” is among my favorites on the album. While on much of the album GZA uses minimal words to make maximum statements, one of his greatest gifts, here his words are densely packed, immaculately maneuvering between pressure point driven punchlines to sharp visual imagery, worthy of the precision of a Damascus Steel blade.
The track to “Gold” sounds as if it would have been the perfect theme music for the nighttime illusionary transitions in the movie “Dark City”. Essentially this is the first track that captures where “Liquid Swords” fundamentally best excels, meticulously outlining chilling and graphic street narratives. Songs such as “Gold”, “Cold World”, “Killah Hills 10304”, “Investigative Reports” and “I Gotcha Back” suggests that had MCing not panned out, a career in crime novels might have proved fruitful. The strength is in those moments where his words rise from the page, thru the speaker, and form three-dimensional imagery, such as when a killer exercises patience to mask his murderous intentions as he lays in wait, “Under the subway, waiting for the train to make noise/So I can blast a ni**a and his boys…” GZA has a natural gift for innovative rhyme schemes, but uses it fairly sparingly, making it more bolded when he introduces it, particularly when intertwined with pictorial assistance, “His glock clicks like high-heel shoes on parquet floors/Mad sick, stand on hills and invade wards…”*
“Cold World” was one of the album singles and is a great example of the team of RZA and GZA being able to paint dark pictures, but effectively contrast them against a beautiful and peaceful, though marginally haunting, background. “Cold World” features one of the two Inspectah Deck verses on the album. Deck most shines on his “Duel Of The Iron Mic” appearance (which takes place earlier on the album). The Deck verse on “Cold World” isn’t unmemorable, but his performance on “Duel…” is one of a few examples of discussions arising about him becoming the chief wordsmith in the WU around that same time. That fact, paired with the superior first verse from the GZA on “Cold World” left me more hungry for a second verse from the album’s host, preferably the details to what occurred once back on the “Mutha f***king spot on Lexington!”
In a sense, “Killah Hill 10304” is an updated, more sonically fitting and attitude appropriate version of “Life Of A Drug Dealer” from “Words From The Genius”. Within the drug tale the GZA’s descriptive nature pushes the limits as he describes the key characters, a “bomb specialist” who also doubles as the owner of “a neighborhood newsstand” or the extremist who “underwent surgery” in order to transport drugs in his “left leg”, but finds himself surrounded after his “pirate limp gave him away.” It’s all in the details*.
It’s easy to get caught up in the witty punchlines of “I Gotcha Back”, like describing life in the inner city as, “Trapped in a deadly video game with just one man” or his C.R.I.M.E acronym of, “Criminals Robbing Innocent Muthafu***s Every-time.” However, getting lost in that might cause you to miss disturbing visuals like, “Little shorties take walks to the schoolyard/Trying to solve the puzzles to why his life’s so hard/Then as soon as they reach the playground, BLAUW!!/Shots rang off and now one of them lay down!”
GZA has said that “4th Chamber” was a song he didn’t have lyrics prepared for and had to come up with something, I assume quicker than his usual slow-building writing process. All of the guests give stellar performances***. The Ghostface verse is classic for many reasons. The second verse is a bit of an introduction of Killah Priest to the world at large. RZA’s verse is one of my all-time favorites of his, particularly the ill opening, “Camouflage chameleon, Ninjas scaling your building/No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children!” GZA isn’t necessarily lacking, but it’s one of the rare and first moments where he isn’t the clear stand out lyricist on a song. The guests take a more stream of conscious approach, allowing them to deliver an array of shocking and gripping images, GZA’s rhyme is broken into two key separate parts. The first half (slightly more than half actually) could have served as a start to that second verse I requested on “Cold World”. Then somewhat suddenly GZA moves into a battle-rhymesque style, which ends with the clever, yet simple sounding, “Now watch me blow him out his shoes without clues/Because I won’t hesitate to detonate, I’m short-fused.”
“Swordsman” could be considered the official dirty and raw anthem of the album. In the first verse GZA reviews his life and thoughts on the confusion and false realities of superstitions and religion. The second verse has him reliving the agonies endured by those who lived through the slave trade, those experiences eventually lead him to the spiritual path that he found later in life. He also takes a moment to give a critical analysis of those who claim to be on that same righteous path, but don’t see those traits through, “I see ni***a quote math plus degrees/Lip professing a** ni**as can’t feed their own seeds!” That line is among the most powerful on the album. At this time in Hip Hop there was a sudden interest in Black Consciousness, Islam, and things of that nature. Certainly it was a good thing for young kids to be taking an interest in their history, spirituality, and place in society. However, the other side of it is was that many were just lost in the trend of it all and would speak all the positive and righteous talk, yet their lifestyles reflected nothing or very little of it.
Returning to GZA’s, “I don’t waste ink…” line, one might notice that no song on “Liquid Swords" has more than two verses from him, most only containing one****, yet the album clocks in just shy of an hour. As a result, a finished listening of the album should invoke feelings of satisfaction, but also leave you hungry for more. It’s not uncommon for me to let this album continue over for a second time upon completion. Preparing to write this review I’ve listened to the album probably at least 20 times over the least two weeks or so and I could still gladly partake in repeated listens.
Often the impact and refined craftsmanship associated in making this album causes people to unfairly under-appreciate later efforts by the GZA, as I’ll discuss in my next two reviews of “Beneath The Surface” and “Legend Of The Liquid Sword”. However, that’s further proof that the true strength of “Liquid Swords” is far greater than the music itself. One must consider the fact it was still fairly early in Wu-tang’s (IE RZA’s) immeasurable innovative and vastly influential style. It was about timing. It was the means in which Shogun Assassin threaded things together. It was the raw essence of a RZA beat. And, of course, it was the fluid and laser-like sharpness and precision of the GZA’s verbal swordplay*****… *
Written By Kevin Beacham
*Trivial Kevin Thoughts; One question I always wondered was about the line, “He promised his Moms a mansion with mad room/She died and he still put a hundred grand in her tomb.” Did he mean he invested that much money into her tomb or did he bury a hundred grand cash physically with her…I need the answer to have the proper visual. I’m always having a conflicting visual image with that one…ha.
**When I interviewed GZA a decade ago he also pointed out his use of the name Soprano in the lyrics about Gangland activities, four years before the TV Show of the same name debuted.
***The Ghostface verse references an incident I was present for in Chicago that lead to a response song from All Natural. Also, near the end of the RZA verse he says “use the sky as a blanket, stuff the clouds inside my pillow”, but he delivers it so frantic and intense you might overlooked it’s great imagery. That line would get reworked by Inspectah Deck on “Above The Clouds” by Gang Starr and garner much more critical attention and props, though it’s essentially the same line, “…rest in the sky, the cloud’s my sofa.” Finally, RZA also says, “Protons & Electrons Always Cause Explosions”, another acronym for P.E.A.C.E that I referenced GZA doing first among the WU yesterday in the “Words From The Genius” review.
****Not to mention the closing track on the CD version, “B.I.B.L.E” which is a Killah Priest solo track.****GZA and RZA announced some time ago they they were working diligently on a true follow up to "Liquid Swords", such an idea teeters on the ideas of fan-like excitement and the cautiousness of tampering with a classic formula. Time will tell...
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