GZA - Liquid Swords
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
One Jerome David Salinger, in response to his audience’s queries regarding what had already become an extremely slow-to-come future work, hypothesized that he would keep on writing stories about his pet project, the Glass family, provided that plot and convention did not “disappear entirely” within his excessive prose idiosyncracies. Unfortunately, the erratic “Seymour: An Introduction” and even stranger, as-yet-unpublished-between-hard-covers “Hapsworth 16, 1924” showed the author doing just that. (The latter, an unbelievably lengthy and barely readable letter from a bubbling-over-with-precocity eight-year old to his parents at summer camp, seemed to hint that Salinger had long abandoned plausibility as a necessary factor in the writing of fiction, or wildly—dementia could be the culprit here—overestimated his readers’ ability to suspend disbelief.) We think that Salinger, as stated, has continued to create work of this bizarre nature, yet refuses (perhaps with good reason) to publish it. Here the analogy with, say, Kevin Shields presents itself, though I’d much rather hope that Shields is just a perfectionist, if to an obsessive and damaging degree, than this sort of lunatic. A second analogy, then, is in order: the Wu-Tang Clan. Opaque slang? Check. Eccentricities in spades? Check. Lengthy absences from the industry? Well...
Well, the Wu have released all their missteps, is the thing. Even diehards began to see chinks appear in the solo-album-spawning juggernaut by the release of 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever, which some of us may have now forgotten began with a hilariously overlong burst of Five Percenter doctrine by Poppa Wu, contained an awful ersatz slow-jam in “Black Shampoo” and a lot of sloppy, subpar production by RZA’s soundalike, 4th Disciple. Even RZA himself sounded a bit weary denouncing “shark niggas” (a.k.a. biters) on the second disc’s introductory rant, and by the time, a few anemic solo discs and spin-offs later, his Bobby Digital alter-ego appeared amid talk of what seemed to be a hopelessly muddled movie—I’m really pretty sad that this never materialized—many had begun to write him off. Of course, for all this, there have been great singles and albums, among them Ghost Dog’s soundtrack, Supreme Clientele, and selected tracks from The W (by this time, though, I’m thinking that of its scattershot aspect as a very different kind of genius; I recall The Onion A.V. Club saying it seemed “infected” by the same delirium possessed by Nigga Please).
A scratchy kung-fu film sample from Liquid Swords’ “Duel of the Iron Mic”: “At the height of their fame and glory, they turned on one another, each struggling in their fame for ultimate supremacy. In the passion and death of their struggle, the very art that raised them to such Olympian heights was lost. Their techniques vanished.” For me, few other words could sum up the story of the Wu, after this album—a solo outing for the GZA which I sometimes think rivals the group’s debut for sheer ambience and invention, and which I hasten to say is their recorded pinnacle. Sure, why not? It’s a difficult masterwork, though, one that could be easily described as alienating. It’s often simultaneously difficult and shamelessly ham-fisted, dark and hilarious, murky and delicate, full of well-constructed rage. It’s got superb lyrics (GZA is known for difficult internal rhyme schemes which somehow work beautifully, even when they shouldn’t), but it’s got some awful ones (“Bitches puttin’ airport keys in their vaginas”? What? Don’t get me started on the stilted table-read quality of the “Do you know a Mr. Don Rodriguez?” skit, but know that I secretly love it as much on anything else on the album). The rest, the part we can’t easily explain, is patched together from the pop-culture detritus that lurked under the pop-culture detritus everyone else salvaged: out-of-place, off-key digital synths, bits of old Stax/Volt soul records and what has to be a sample from some sub-Switched-On-Bach Moog-gone-classical album (“Killah Hills 10304,” I’m looking in your direction), and taped-from-the-TV dialogue belonging to movies with titles like Kung Fu of Eight Drunkards.
Things kick off with a lengthy introduction from some afternoon ninja film, then segue awkwardly into the title track. RZA says he’s about to take us back to “the source, the knowledge,” and he soon does. A comical, menacing keyboard line ascends and descends while the Genius tell us that “I represent from midnight to high noon / I don’t waste ink, nigga, I think / I drop megaton bombs more faster than ya blink.” Lyrically, he’s on point, smooth and fierce, with no chorus or anything beyond a three-second pause to get in the way. “Duel of the Iron Mic” maintains the first track’s momentum and wackness-will-be-punished-with-death themes, this time with intricate, exotic splashes of piano, a minimal beat, and a brilliant (albeit brief) ODB cameo on the chorus, as well as appearances from Masta Killa and the usually underrated Inspecta Deck. “Living in the World Today” features a lurking, bizarrely melodic, Eastern-tinged bassline and some eerier-than-usual sound effects added to what it’s clear by now is a winning formula often raised to exhilarating heights. (A lyrical highlight is this terse sucker-punch: “Now who could ever say they heard of this? / My motherfuckin’ style is mad murderous!”)
“Gold” features a dissonant, low-budget soundscape pieced together from hard-edged snares, a good deal of tossed-together incidental grime, what sounds like a theremin, and some live keyboard. The smoother, near-pop “Cold World” (boasting an R&B chorus, even) may be the most instantly ear-pleasing track, but its violins and mournful electric piano are desolate indeed, to say nothing of its lyrics; “Labels” is a classic threat to all other rap purveyors that manages to string together the names of, well, many record labels (it’s my second favorite song to diss Herb Alpert’s A&M, after The Fall’s “C’n’C Smithering”). These two tracks are perhaps a shade unexceptional, but any doubts the listener may have about the power of this album are set to rest with “4th Chamber”: after another long stretch of sampled film dialogue, a pitch-bent keyboard squeal issues a threnodic warning as to what’s coming up next, and the electric-guitar-laden beat slams in with unholy intensity. (For another of the most thrilling, maniacally repetitious beats I’ve heard, check “I Gotcha Back,” with its looping, feverish horn line.) An ultimate posse cut led off by Ghostface Killah’s metaphysical probing (“Why did Judas rat the Romans while Jesus slept?”), it soon gives way to an even more astonishing, hyperactive RZA verse, rich in breathless they’ve-got-documents-on-it-locked-away but-they-know-we’re-onto-them and-they’re-coming-for-us paranoia with a righteous-anger, gnomic undertone. It doesn’t make much sense, but it sure is amazing. And much the same could be said of this album.
The final third of the album is considerably more finely-tuned and lucid, enthralling in an entirely different manner. Let's leave the baffling final track, "B.I.B.L.E.," out of this. It's the fourth to feature workmanlike, but more or less unexceptional, Wu hanger-on Killah Priest (though he did have a wonderful, lysergic verse on one of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Greyhound" remixes), and some slightly unfortunate too-clean guest production; this doesn't really seem like the sort of album that should end on an upbeat death-is-not-the-end note. I'm much happier with the wonderfully-produced "Swordsman," with its looming, dense, and, well, liquid beat (maybe even the album's strongest) and wondrously spiteful potshots at both black academica and white Christianity. "Shadowboxin'" pairs GZA and Meth to stunning results; the former's precision and the latter's laid-back drawl complement each other perfectly.
The stately "Investigative Reports" nearly tops "A Better Tomorrow" from Forever, which is no easy feat. And here's the part of the review where I talk once again about how the Wu actualy never did top this album's mix of pirated Asian cultural referents, been-there-done-that noir, rugged, terse, no-bullshit lyricism, and wild-card catchphrase loopiness: like one who tries to catch lightning in a bottle again, they never yet managed to make anything this memorable, otherworldly, and strangely beautiful again.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01