Looking back at the GZA’s chess rap masterpiece on its silver anniversary
Wu-Tang Clan are Shaolin’s finest, but because of the incredible individual skill-sets of its members, the collective’s occasional group releases are often overshadowed by the related solo offerings.
It’s hard to imagine a musical collective aside from The Beatles where related solo albums are so often judged as extensions of the parent unit’s vision, but accordingly, it’s hard to consider a group closer to a “Beatles of hip-hop” than the Wu. Together, their strength has always been the sum of their interlocking parts, the monumental shifting of culture and intellect present in their voices, from RZA’s forward-thinking production to the absolute diversity of approaches to rapping itself found within their ranks. ODB was unhinged and gruff, Ghostface surrealist and fevered. Raekwon was smooth and nimble where Method Man was more playful and showman-like. At the center of these olympic feats of word-craft, though, stood GZA. He wasn’t the most individualist of the group’s stylists, nor the most overwhelmingly passionate. GZA was and is simply a damn good rapper and writer, perhaps the singular embodiment of the Wu ideal and vision, confident yet calm, stunning yet pure in focus.
It’s perhaps for this reason that GZA’s second solo full-length, Liquid Swords, is often cited as the best of the Wu-Tang solo albums (though Only Built For Cuban Linx…, Tical, and Supreme Clientele rightfully have their advocates). Only a year after the East Coast watershed of Nas’ Illmatic, and sharing a release year with future rap classics like Me Against The World and The Infamous, Liquid Swords for many still defines hip-hop in 1995, relentlessly basement-grimy and cold, adrift on frosty beats etched with dusty vinyl crackles and sampled shreds of mournful jazz piano. Mid-90s hip-hop was every bit as nihilist and bloodstained as late-90s hip hop would be champagne-soaked and shiny-suited, still a glimpse at the darker side of a 90s American dream that deeply disturbed white suburban parents and enthralled their disillusioned children. The music on Liquid Swords was eerie and dread-soaked, but the wordplay was more than just violent, it was intelligent and impeccably-crafted, shattering stereotypes about poverty and race by virtue of being as intelligent as it was aggressive. Perhaps it was this dichotomy that frightened those suburban parents most of all.
As always, Clan godhead RZA’s production is the necessary framework to build such a staggeringly brilliant statement around, from the inspired kung-fu flick sampling of the intro to the melting trumpet splatters of Method Man-featuring “Living In The World Today”, his colorful touches lift the album above a mere showcase of lyrical muscle-flexing. On “Cold World” a weary tremolo guitar underpinning is answered with a warping, half-decayed soul refrain that prefigures Burial by about a decade or so; by “Swordsman” that guitar turns fuzzy and belligerent, haunting the back of the mix like an irrepressible demon possessing GZA’s downcast verses. Such is the ghostly landscape of Liquid Swords, an urban hell of boarded-up projects and graffiti-scrawled overpasses beneath the frozen winter sky, automatic fire piercing blocks of stained brick and trash in vacant lots, blood crawling down the peeling advertisements pasted onto bus stops. If late-90s hip-hop was the jubilance of having escaped such a jungle to transcend into golden utopias of Bentleys and shrimp and Gulfstream jets, mid-90s albums like Liquid Swords were about the souls struggling day to day with the weight of a collapsing city bruising their shoulders, killing and selling death to make ends meet, brushing rats off of sinks and banging on dying old radiators as another bleak day of hustling and surviving began. It’s a horror-film sprawl of sensory impressions, minor-key but achingly honest.
GZA’s ultimate thesis fittingly arrives on the album’s bitter, menacing closer, “I Gotcha Back”. After the downhearted, dead-eyed documentation of such gloomy surroundings on the previous tracks, here GZA finally sounds infuriated, spitting the words in his snarling drawl like the taste of each one disgusts him. “But it’s an everlasting game, and it’d never cease to exist, only the players change, so I gotcha back, but you’re best to watch up front”. On an entirely different musical front, it nonetheless echoes the sentiments of the late Jason Molina on Song: Ohia’s “Didn’t It Rain”: “If you see me struggle all night, and give me a hand ‘cause I’m in need, I’ll call you friend indeed…but I’m gonna watch my own back”. Whether it be Rust Belt alcoholism and working-class drudgery or the struggle to get by in the murderous streets of 90s NYC, the message is the same: we can look out for each other all we like, and there’s love and beauty to be found there, but in the end, all of us must face that darkness on our own, and whatever happens in the end is ultimately up to ourselves. This idea is as old as the concept of narrative music itself, but only the greatest of artists can absolutely stop the breath in your throat with how they break it down and present it, as if entirely new in such a context.
Commenting on the album upon its release, GZA famously offered what might be his clearest motto, and by extension the entire Clan’s: “I’d rather slip on the pavement than slip on my tongue.” GZA’s rhymes here redefine perfectionism, each word set perfectly in place so that you can feel the craftsmanship and endless revision that went into formulating such a perfect and unimpeachable statement. Perhaps even more than any collective Wu-Tang release, Liquid Swords is what people think of when they think of what Wu-Tang means. So it bears saying again: RZA had the production sonics, Meth the showmanship, Ghostface the surrealism, Raekwon the smoothness of skill, ODB the energy, but GZA had the heart. Liquid Swords is his heartbeat set to wax and set gloriously aflame.