DJ Muggs vs. GZA
ip-hop in 2005 is all about where you’re from, which is why it’s partly appropriate that Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs and the GZA have reunited to release Grandmasters, their first collaboration since Muggs’s Soul Assassins comp from 1997, the last time hip-hop was so dominated by contrasting regional subcultures (albeit for starkly different reasons). Soul Assassins revolved around the idea that both coasts had more in common than they were willing to admit, and Grandmasters goes against the contemporary grain by eschewing any possible geographical references in favor of presenting an album focused solely on the strengths of the artists involved.
Like all of GZA’s works, Grandmasters is lyrically driven, and its content implicitly draws parallels—just as the title does—between the related skills required to conquer the games of chess and hip-hop. Muggs and GZA are well-established artists whose commercial glory days may be behind them, but Grandmasters is as focused as a debut would be.
Muggs has taken extra care to craft his beats so that they play to GZA’s strengths as a lyricist. On “Exploitation of Mistakes” a plain beat and delicate piano loop match GZA’s no-frills account of a grisly crime scene. Later in the album when GZA’s delivery sharpens into pointed barbs, Muggs turns up his own intensity, most notably on “Illusory Protection,” where the production is a dark and threatening soundscape.
Still, GZA remains the album’s unquestioned star. The Wu will obviously never fully recover from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death, but it does seem like his passing has galvanized and re-motivated its remaining members. Although Muggs’s role clearly keeps this from being an official Wu release, Grandmasters still feels like one, as RZA, Raekwon and Masta Killa all drop in at various points. RZA provides the hook on “All in Together Now,” GZA’s sincere, honest ode to his lifelong friend. It’s hard to imagine anyone else capturing ODB’s legacy as succinctly as GZA does. The lyrics are wistful, but also unflattering when merited, and GZA covers a lot of ground, paying tribute to ODB’s uniqueness as well as expressing frustration about how the media portrayed him.
Grandmasters contains plenty of the usual Genius tracks where it’s explicitly laid out that GZA and the Clan are unstoppable forces of nature, and given how good GZA is at performing this type of song, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll ever grow stale. But Grandmasters’ finest moments come when GZA goes elsewhere. “Queen’s Gambit” weaves the names of all thirty-two NFL franchises into a sweeping narrative about his pursuit of an aspirant young woman. At times he just inserts the team names into sentences he might have written anyway, (“The shorter one met me when I had a Sky pager / Thought I rolled with robbers, Steelers and panty Raiders”), and other times he molds the name to fit a word he already had in mind (“I told her to stay strong, not to be ashamed / You’re a “ten-I-see,” you just need to Titan your game”). Either way, “Queen’s Gambit” is extremely fun to listen to and instantly memorable.
What shouldn’t be lost on listeners is that Muggs and GZA have again reasserted their esteemed positions in the hip-hop world despite the fact that their most high-profile works are behind them. GZA’s still-evolving tricks and Muggs’s concerted efforts to shape his beats so that they best fit a somewhat unfamiliar artist demonstrate that neither has grown static in their approach and their outlook toward making new music. Grandmasters is a heady title for an album, but these two are as qualified for it as anyone else outside of Kasparov.
Reviewed by: Ross McGowan
Reviewed on: 2005-11-01