Time changes everything. Time heals all wounds. As tired as these cliches are, they also sometimes reveal the simple truth of things. With time, the wounds that Gary Grice received after his ill-fated debut on "Words From the Genius" have faded away. In the process, the man transformed himself from The Genius to the GZA. The sound of the name was harder and so was the man -- scarred by the business, but tempered by those fires into something that was even harder than steel -- a liquid sword.
Over the last decade, Wu-Tang fans have pledged their allegiance to the Clan's strength in numbers, but they have also recognized that even a Clan must have a leader. RZA is the visible front man as the acknowledged brainchild behind them and the uber-producer responsible for their gritty sound, but in the shadows GZA is the master who trains young adepts to sharpen their skills. They learn by example; for the GZA's swordplay is Witty Unpredictable Talent All Natural Game. Others grab the spotlight, but GZA's motto has always been to play low pro. "Too many songs, weak rhymes that's mad long; make it brief son, half short and twice strong." Don't mistake his humility for weakness, or his silence for ignorance - he just waits until the time is right to let his brightness shine.
That time is now, and the newest Chamber of the GZA's martial arts style brings him full circle to where his debut as GZA began on "Liquid Swords." Many have long since realized that GZA is one of the dopest MC's in hip-hop, but they still don't know the legend of the Liquid Sword, and this album wastes no time in giving an "Auto Bio" on how he became a Master Swordsman:
"I was born, with the mic in my hand
Then I took it from Medina, to the S.I. land
I pulled up on the block
Got out the truck, it was the first of pit stops
The era of the spinnin tops, the birth of hip-hop
That was somethin, I had identified with
So I, made it my point to exploit this fly gift
Then -- myself and RZA, made trips to the B.X.
A mass of ferocious MC's and talent T-Rex
Giants in every ways, rap flows for every day
We knew we would get a reward for the price to pay
The basic training was beyond, entertainin
Just the cadence of the verbal expressions, self explainin
Wore my boots out in constant walks across the borough
Tore the troops out the frame when they challenge the most thorough
From well concealed, firin positions we let off the most
Dangerous with that, slang that just shatter the coast"
Jay 'Waxx' Garfield provides the sonic background for this epic tale, with a luscious mixture of tinkling pianos, rumbling bass and symphonic stabs breaking up the bars of GZA's verses. The sense you get from this mixture is as intense as hearing the opening bars of "Reunited" when GZA and his Clan struck a match to the underground, and leaves you wide open for the rest of the album to follow. "Did Ya Say That" builds on BOOLA's potent brew of funk from keyboards to conga drums and makes the verbal attack even more gritty and harsh:
"Raindrops keep fallin on ya head; so heavy
that it's tearin what you wearin ain't carin
so you hearin what I said -- I'm makin sure it stick
Like a stamp you don't lick or a snare with no kick
So you know it be authentic like the handmade, works of a carpenter
The 64 squares, made him use the sharpener
Kept a fine point with the lead, then there's thread
on the paper like cancer it would rapidly spread
This music is addictive you can't, live without it
At times you hear him shout out, the Wu, they be about it"
Indeed. Both GZA's own followers and Clan junkies as a whole will be please to see that Positive Elevation Always Corrects Errors with this release; which builds on the fundamentals of great beats and rhymes that made them such a hip-hop powerhouse in the first place:
"I still, run into students, bangin my first joint
Wrote an essay off the second LP, to prove a point
That a rhyme is a terrible thing to waste
Gimmicks and radio, the God don't chase"
A Wu-Tang album wouldn't be complete without darts from the other swordsmen of the group, so you can find Ghost and Streetlife on "Silent," Masta Killa and RZA on "Fam (Members Only)" and Inspectah Deck on "Sparring Minds" among others. Any of these songs would be great individually on a Clan LP or the solo albums of another member, but here they all play second fiddle to the GZA's verbal acumen; the latter being a perfect example:
"Designed to meet most demands, stands the front endloader
Hold enough weight that'll compensate the shareholders
Powerful, motor controls are mad stable
No room for error, injury proves fatal
Hundred ton airjack, quickly raised the steel
After blowin out the belt drive math changed the wheels
Bust ya, slash ya, we still thick like plaster
There's always potential for large scale disasters
Indirect rippin, narrowly missin
My camp be forced into perilous proposition
He must come see us, despite imminent danger
Was short on fuel before he flew out the hanger
From the cold dirt, rocks and ore, rap galore
Watch a river flow backwards once we storm the shore"
It's not simply that the GZA is a great lyricist. Without hearing him flow, the quality of his choice of words conveys that. You can read it in print or braille and still feel the world he portrays with his rhymes. He chooses words that are beyond the average, spits a vocab that speaks of years of his time spent honing a preciseness far beyond mortal MC's. It's more than even that though - when the GZA flows, he has the ability to draw you into worlds like stepping through a Stargate. You listen and you find yourself everywhere; from the slums of Shaolin to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. This is truly what the Ultramagnetic meant when they were "Travelling at the Speed of Thought" - GZA's slightly raspy and deeply brassy voice with the slightest of crispness to his speech (a la Kool G. Rap) splash the canvas with words as epic as the Iliad of Homer.
Raps these spectacular are nothing without beats to match, and GZA is well met here by a surprising selection of producers OTHER than the RZA. Arabian 'Q-Base' Knight gives plucky and simply powerful rhythms on "Highway Robbery," "Stay in Line" and the first single "Fame" among others; the aforementioned Jay 'Waxx' Garfield provies the butter of the album's second single "Knock, Knock"; DJ Muggs makes a guest appearance on "Luminal"; "Tyquan Walker" handles the incredible lush "Animal Planet" and GZA even does one gem himself -- "Uncut Material." Fear not Wu fans, RZA does handle duties on "Rough Cut" so he's not completely absent, but his peers have without him crafted an album with an incredibly dense and fully realized Wu-Tang sound.
For those heads who have eagerly been waiting the return of great lyrics, "Legend of the Liquid Sword" is more than just one of 2002's best hip-hop albums. It's a return to form after a period of time in which Grice appeared on material which still featured sharp verbals but seemed to lack the sudden impact of his debut as the GZA after being known as The Genius. It's almost as though we had never known who he was for all these years, and he suddenly burst on the scene with unknown credentials and stole the show with powerful breath control and a loquacious flow. This album is bold and forceful - GZA like we always knew, back even stronger. It's almost like hearing Rakim for the first time all over again. In fact, though many MC's have claimed heir to the R's throne over the years, it's the "half short and twice strong" MC who has probably earned it the most -- though he'd never let on that it was true even if he knew. He'd just smile at you across the board and take your queen with his rook. Witty Unpredictable Talent All Natural Game. Checkmate, sucka.
Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: December 14, 2002