Album Review: The Genius a.k.a GZA "Beneath The Surface" (1999)

August 31, 2012 11 min read


This is the third 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 and the "Liquid Swords" Review HERE!


BUY "LIQUID SWORDS" NOW!!! Choose From: Deluxe 2-CD & Chess Set Version! Original CD Version! 2XLP Version!

As soon as I popped in the “Beneath The Surface” CD for this article I realized I did the exact worst thing to cloud that experience….I had spent the last two weeks listening to the GZA’s magnum opus, “Liquid Swords.” However, by the third listen I think felt comfortable enough to objectively compare the two when I felt the need, but focus on weighing its strengths without pre-determined expectations.

Theoretically GZA approached “Beneath The Surface” in a very imaginative, if a bit “risky” way. Artistically, he was largely successful. Conceptually, he didn’t always nail it, but the imperfections don’t hinder the album. I should say, “shouldn’t” hinder the album, because I think for many they did, due to the comparisons to “Liquid Swords.” 

GZA came into this album with a wealth of challenges. First, the obvious, his last album was virtually an uncontested classic, that’s always nearly impossible to out do. Secondly, it had been four years since “Liquid Swords”, so fans were hungry for another GZA album. However, on the other hand a lot had changed in that time, even within the WU. I feel like based on the slowed output in the couple preceding years, this is the first time people started to question the status of Wu-tang Clan. This applied some pressure on the WU releases of ’99 and on top of that, by then RZA was no longer the sole managing producer of these projects. In fact, the ’99 WU releases found themselves even reaching out beyond the WU affiliate producers such as True Master, 4th Disciple, and even Inspectah Deck who had started to rise as a beatmaker in the crew*. Of all the key WU related ’99 releases (which include ODB’s “Ni**a Please”, Raekwon’s “Immobilarity”, U-God’s “Golden Arms Redemption”, and Inspectah Deck’s “Uncontrolled Substance”), “Beneath The Surface” ranks the best and arguably the closest to maintaining a Wu-like sound. It should be also noted  that "Beneath The Surface" did achieve Gold Sales status, the same as "Liquid Swords".

I’m guessing GZA approached this album with two primary concerns upfront: who does the production and how to maintain the cohesiveness and conceptual ambiance of “Liquid Swords”, but without sounding dated. “Beneath The Surface” is an enhanced CD with several short video clips** and in one of them he says, “The tracks are banging, more up-tempo. More on the thug level…on the rah-rah level.” That more or less explains the sound of the album. Where “Liquid Swords” is completely set apart from what the industry was doing at the time, “Beneath The Surface” seeks to infiltrate the mainstream. Not just blend in lazily, but snatch up its recipe, improve on the original design and spit it back in the industry’s face. It’s a noble idea, as well as a convenient one. It allows GZA to challenge the competition in the spirit of his Old School roots and at the same time not attempt to re-forge a companion liquid sword without the original blacksmith, RZA. For the beats; Inspectah Deck contributes one. Allah Mathematics steps up to the plate strong with five tracks, which all range from solid to very impressive. RZA isn’t completely absent, he’s contributes one track, plus he’s listed as an Executive Producer on the project as well. John The Bapist, who had done a few WU related beats around this time has one of the albums best beats (“Crash The Crew”). Finally, relative-newcomer, Arabian Knight provides five beats, two of which are clear stand outs.

As for the conceptual issue, GZA takes an ambitous and fairly logical approach. I envision his thought process being something along the lines of, ‘We don’t need to sample. We can create our own cinematic themes.’ I would also guess the decision was based partially on creative enthusiasm, but perhaps moreso on financial practicality. Case in point, I read that RZA paid $100,000 to use the samples from Shoguns Assassin on “Liquid Swords”! That was bonkers in general, expensive but affordable for the WU in ’95, but completely insane to attempt anything remotely similar in ’99. GZA actually does a good job at creating realistic sounding commercial-like skits. However, the placement of them on the album doesn’t seem well thought out. Some slight tweaks could have made this more effective.

The album starts with “Amplified Sample” where Mathematics does a nice job of creating an evolved Wu-tang gritty sound that is fitting for being on the cusp of the new millennium. Vocally, GZAimmediately proves that all his admired traits as a writer on “Liquid Swords” are still undoubtedly in tact, “Move swift as light, 1,000 years (in) one night/In flight with insight, everything I thought of I saw it happen/Then I rose from the soil, the sun blackened/Then came Rap Czars, left tracks and scars/Apparent brightness of exploding stars/Gave you goods to taste, no ingredients to trace/You remain stuck, trying to figure the shape of space…”Excellence.

The title track is a well-produced Inspectah Deckoffering featuring Killah Priest. I honestly don’t know exactly what GZA is talking about. I feel like there might be some hidden meanings that are just going over my head, but maybe its just a well organized assortment of random ideas, regardless it sounds good. There’s a steady stream of verbal pictures and witty wordplay.

“Crash My Crew” is easily my favorite track on the album. The tbeat, by John The Baptist, has a RZA-esque feel to it, but with more brightness. The gated snare drops like a hammer and the chaotic horns add the welcomed intensity and make the beat sound busy, but in actually it’s effectively bare-boned, an ideal soundscape for the GZA to flex his lyrical finesse. I recall an interview(s) early on in the WU movement where they gave credit to the roots of the Wu-tang concept to two specific Hip Hop crews; Juice Crew (primarily for the structure of having several verbal warriors being centered around one producer, Marley Marl) and the Crash Crew (who’s extended crew, the Poison Clan,name was derived from Kung Fu flicks and they were known as a self-contained unit on the Old School scene). I’m assuming the song’s title is also a nod to them. Building further on the Old School foundation, GZA’s lyrics recreate the environment of those early days, “Cut the mic line, catch juice from the lamp pole/Fifteen 20” woofers blow the manhole!” You might need to have experienced a Rap party in the 70s or 80s to fully appreciate his comment, “Echo chamber ate your rap up ferociously!” As you continue on, eyes-closed, scanning the scenery, you are reminded that sometimes the street element could creep in nearly un-noticed, “One individual they forgot to frisk/Now his pursuit is not without risk...”The art of being audio-visual is generally reserved to flashing quick images, but GZA captures a time-lapse mini-documentary in one-line, “I seen a million tryin’ to set a flow, thousands at shows/Observe with the patience of watching a flower grow…”***

“Breaker, Breaker” is the key single from the album. I think it’s a pretty exceptional model for a GZA single.  It’s not a “Hit” single in a traditional sense, but it’s probably as Club Friendly as GZA can get without sacrificing his pure essence. Despite my enjoyment of the song, I don’t 100% know how I feel about the track. It undoubtedly works well in context and the way the strings are arranged keep things interesting, but I’m not crazy about the drums (programming or tuning), they mainly just serve purpose. However, maybe that’s what makes it work as a semi-standardish single for GZA, something he hadn’t really tried or really needed before (with the exception of "Come Do Me", but I like to forget about that one...) In any case, lyrically GZA is as focused as ever and there are scattered moments of genius surrounding its overall greatness. He initiates with, “This is a not a test…it’s difficulty/Picture closely, the ignorant mostly/Blind, deaf, dumb, your mind left numb/Lost soul, who failed to hear the roll of the drum/In the bottom of your bomb shelter (you) still felt a/Heavy blast that blew off the mask of twelve welders/The math of an elder, praise the lord, thank you Genius/Operation: Project English.” More verbal superiority takes place in the second verse which begins, “The immortality of my fame is the measure of others torture…” It hits its peak a few bars later, “The significance is not vulgar applause of interest (?)/But the feeling that exits completion of a sentence/With age and experience my reason ripens/I strike on you Vikings, slash like a hyphen…”Within the verse there are several clever compacted concepts that hit completely on target and it finally comes to a close harking back to a bird reference earlier in the verse, “You wild cards, jack of all trades/Those who parade their positions show their spades/A large flock of MCs, they figure to be taught/It ain’t hard to see why I’m vigorously sought!”

“High Price, Small Reward” is a fairly standard GZA battle rhyme, nothing special, but nothing to be mad at either. The best moments of the track come courtesy of Masta Killa. Besides his per usual use of creative rhyme patterns, he also drops a excellent quotable, “Youths thirst for knowledge, I teach but hold heat/Because some savage ni**as are lost beyond reach…”

“Hip Hop Fury” has a interesting, sort of trippy, track and features some of the top Wu affiliate MCs; Hell Razah (who probably has the best verse), Timbo King, Dreddy Kruger, and RZA on the hook. It’s a solid track, but nothing particularly dynamic about it. This reminds me that I seem to remember one of the bigger critical complaints of the album was it had too many guest MCs. I definitely can’t really argue with that, but perhaps it’s not so much too many, as it is who and how the guest artists are used on the album. Five of the album’s guest (Killah Priest, Njeri, Masta Killa, Timbo King, and Hell Razah) each of two (or more) verses on the album. Of the original Wu Clan, the only one with an actual verse is Method Man, on what is probably my least favorite album track (mainly because I don’t like the beat). “Feel Like Enemy” is a posse cut that features three members of Sunz Of Man alongside Trigga and GZA isn’t even present on the song.  Also, the “Outro” only has LA The Darkman and Timbo King….again no GZA. So, off the bat you have two of the twelve songs that GZA isn’t even rhyming on. On the remaining ten tracks, nine of them only have one GZA verse. Basically, “Breaker, Breaker”, by offering two verses, is the only real full GZA song.

Speaking of guests, “1112” featurings Masta Killa, Killah Priest, and introduces a talented MC, who happens to be a female, Njeri. It’s the only RZA produced song on the album and GZA addresses that immediately, “Bobby said f**k spending 50 (grand) on a whip/Buy Equip…ment to flip, got a thousand tracks stored on a chip/Said he had mad toys to make noise/He split and separate drums like asteroids/A Concerned producer sampled his question/Hit him with the beat for the question, with extra compression/When sound traveled it quickly grabbed you/Equalize the pitch, huh, until it have you/Bugged out, trying thinking you can match this/The portraits are too graphic/Panoramic view for you, stamp WU!/The beats are gothic, the outcome’ll be catastrophic/We road-blocked it, check points on your next joint/Now who the ni**a you anoint/Seven hundred volts on the track to slay/Murderous wordplay displayed from killing cascade/Throw my bullets in the air to test wind/Which way the cyclone spin/Counter or clockwise/Still civilized, kill spies, on the wall that still flies…all dies”. This is definitely one of his finest moments on the album. Masta Killa and Killah Priest both drop top quality verses, particularly Masta Killa, who I’m thinking I need to do a Microphone Mathematics article on soon…

Njeri who does the closing verses on both “1112” and “Victim” has stellar performances each time. I was in awe of her skills. It was staggering that she just sort of came out of nowhere, dropped two amazing verses and then pretty much disappeared from the scene. She didn’t go completely AWOL, between ’05-’08 she released a few indie albums and also did a couple guest appearances. I admittedly haven’t heard any of those, but I need to seek them out and track her down for more of her back-story as well. When I asked GZA about her in ’02, he gave her props as an ill MC and says that she left the scene for a bit to handle some family biz. It’s unfortunate for the Hip Hop world, at that time we needed more powerful voices from her perspective….still do. 

GZA’s“Victim” verse is superb and it’s probably the song closest to sounding anything from “Liquid Swords”. I like to imagine that his verse is following the misguided path of the kid that GZA once spoke to on “Drama” (on “Words From The Genius”). The few first bars make a pretty profound statement of why a kid would choose the street life over academics, “Heavy foot traffic jam the hallway day/Adolescents working for small pay/World so little he can never leave his block/His home bullet riddled so he always need his glock/Coast with his eye open, keep his metal smoking/Young wasted minds fiending on dimes…coking/But got kids quick to break rules and known to make fools/Out of many, now the streets be more safe than school…” Surprisingly, Njeri follows that verse with one that is at least as stunning, arguably more.

“Publicty” is GZA’s updated twist on the “Labels” concept, except this time rather than record labels, he used Magazine names to weave together a verbal crossword puzzle. It’s well done and actually flows more natural and has solid punchlines. However, I’d guess that less people are aware of these magazines, so the inventiveness is probably lost on most ears. I’m sure there are even some mags in there that I’m not catching as well.

“Mic Trippin” is the album closer and is another excellent Mathematics track. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the album starts and then ends with the best two tracks from Mathematics, which are also two of the album’s best beats and songs. The song could just as easily be titled “Mic Rippin” because that is exactly what GZA is doing…pure premium lyrics, .

Overall synopsis, if you remove the skits you have twelve actual songs. Of those twelve, eight are great. The other four are also good, but are lacking in noteworthy production and/or GZA’s high-level lyricism. Yet, the true issue is the arrangement and the actual artistic input from GZA (IE we quite simply needed more GZA rapping up on there…). However, “Beneath The Surface” from a musical/lyrical standpoint, song for song, is predominantly a solid album. It’s evident that GZA was still hungry and perhaps a bit overly ambitious; when you fold out the album credits, the full four-panel inside is dedicated to a “The Fourth Album” by The GZA slated for later that year in “December ‘99”, just six months after “Beneath The Surface"…that never happened. Instead, his next album came three years later where he attempted to recapture some of the magic from his debut with “Legend Of The Liquid Sword”…

Written By Kevin Beacham

-Editor’s Notes:

*Method Man was the first to do this with “Tical 0” as he had production from Trackmasters, Erick Sermon, Havoc, and Prince Paul but the bulk of the album was done by WU related producers:  4th Disciple, True Master, Mathematics and Inspectah Deck, with three contributions by RZA.

**There are ten clips in all and they are all pretty unininspired. It’s hard to believe there wasn’t more exciting things taking place in the studio. It seems as if this was a last minute idea and they just happened to have a camera in the studio for one day and just winged it. There’s some footage of GZA playing chess in the studio. There’s some behind the scenes stuff of seeing people hanging out, I only recognized Killah Priest, but I didn’t’ try that hard truthfully. There’s a brief clip of him talking about D&D studios, which is interesting only in a Rap nerd sort of way. There is one or two worthwhile pieces where he actually talks about the making of the album, which is what I quoted from above. Also, I watched those clips for the first time today…I generally ignored enhanced CDs because the few I bothered to check out were about as much “fun” as this one…

***It seems fair to note that immediately upon hearing that line it reminded me of a quote from Chill Rob G about 4 years prior, “MCs bore me, they corny a** know/I saw your last show, it’s like watching grass grow”(“Know Ya Place” 1995) …here patience is replaced by boredom, but some basic concept and both great lines in their own right. 

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