GZA – Liquid Swords [Deluxe Edition]
Nearly 20 years after the Wu-Tang Clan – that's RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard – turned hip-hop on its head, put it on its arse and dragged it to Freddie Krueger's crack den, the impact they've had on both rap music and popular culture as a collective has been nothing short of astounding. And, in a way, that was more of a happy accident than the grand scheme. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), their debut LP, was intended as a shop window, a way for all nine members to secure a record deal. Spearheaded by RZA's production nous and industry savvy, the Clan were not just haphazardly talented. They had a business plan, too.
Going by the first flush of LPs that sluiced out of Staten Island between 1994 and 1996 – from Meth's tar-black ode to the green, Tical, to the rough-hewn 60s soul and verbose hi-jinx of Ghostface's Ironman (an album he bettered four years later with Supreme Clientele), it was apparent that the Clan's most charismatic MVPs – Meth, Ol' Dirty, Rae and Ghostface – were to be the yokes that would pull the rest of the Clan out of obscurity.
Plainly, the Gary 'GZA' Grice had no interest in following the gameplan. As one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang alongside cousins RZA and ODB, he'd already been burned by his first record deal with golden age rap factory Cold Chillin', the label through which his seldom-heard first album Words from the Genius emerged in 1991. While his debut, a decent if unspectacular boom-bap record, was hardly tailored for blanket radio coverage, GZA's follow-up withdrew itself completely, cloaked in the shadows of RZA's spectral soundscape. Liquid Swords has no 'hit single' comparable to Raekwon's Ice Cream or ODB's Brooklyn Zoo. It instead pursues a bloody-minded, thematic narrative to portray a world where GZA is a Keyser Soze-esque panopticon: scowling prophet in one instance, wily drug kingpin in the next, but always several steps ahead of everyone: "I use less men, more powerful shit for my team / Like my man Muhammad from Afghanistan / Grew up in Iran, the nigga runs a neighbourhood newsstand / A wild Middle Easter, bomb specialist / Initiated, at 11 to be a terrorist / He set bombs in bottles of champagne / And when niggas popped the cork, niggas lost half they brains."
Such moments of warped humour only serve to intensify Liquid Swords' skulking, predatory menace, as if plastering the champagne suite with skull paste was nothing more than an occupational hazard. GZA's sincerity and matter-of-factness is always world-weary – Liquid Swords has little of the earnest prolixity of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, nor the playful malice of Method Man's Tical. GZA's sword is swift, methodical, and surgically precise: "I'm deep down in the back streets / In the heart of Medina / About to set off something more deep than a misdemeanour / Under the subway, waiting for the train to make noise / So I can blast a nigga and his boys for what / He pushed up on the block and made the dope sales drop like the crashin' of Dow Jones stock." GZA wasn't the Clan's superstar; he was their assassin.
RZA's guiding hand was no less important in executing GZA's vision. Saturating his MPC with bleached Motown loops and queasy, strung-out synths, plus an armoury of door creaks, kung-fu dialogue (all sourced from Shogun Assassin, a shlocky revenge flick that shares Liquid Swords' visceral, rapacious realm of ultra-violence), explosions and other salvaged noises, RZA's considerable source material was rendered utterly unrecognisable through the other side of the meatgrinder (for example, Duel Of The Iron Mic flips an innocuous loop of David Porter's soul standard, I'm Afraid The Masquerade Is Over; if you listen to the original after having put your ears to DOTIM for a time, it sounds plain sinister).
This month's deluxe reissue of Liquid Swords, an album that has a strong claim to represent the most fully-realised document of the Wu-Tang Clan's blend of mythopoeia and inner-city vignettes, is testament to its longevity. Moreover, while the mafioso rap innovated by Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was a blueprint Xeroxed by everyone from Notorious B.I.G to Rick Ross, there is nothing that compares to Liquid Swords. They don't call him the Genius for nothing.