Review Summary: Rhyming, label bashing, drug dealing, and shadowboxin' are all in a day's work for The GZA, Wu-Tang's most cunning lyricist.
Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan may feature enough members to field a baseball team, but it’s amazing how all of them offer a unique personality to distinguish themselves within a group that was already so uniquely aggressive and visceral, and a group who undoubtedly changed the hip-hop game. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Cambers), the group’s mission statement, exhibited the grit and aggression of heavy metal (which the Inspectah Deck claimed they made more noise than on “Protect Ya Neck”) and displayed the realness and integrity that defines true street hip-hop. Out of what seems like 137 members and affiliates of the Wu-Tang Clan, one would think that it would be hard to stand out from the crowd, and it would be easy to become overshadowed by members who’ve garnered more hype like the very popular movie star in the group Method Man, and sometimes it is (see the Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck), but if there's one member of the Clan that shines based on skill alone - with little help from movie and television popularity - it's The GZA, aka The Genius, arguably the sharpest lyrical swordsman in the Clan and someone who truly earns his name.
Out of the first five RZA-produced Wu-Tang solo albums (which also include the dark, hazy Tical and the excellent Only Built 4 Cuban Linx) The GZA’s second solo album (his first was released prior to the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan) is not only a fan favorite, but it’s often hailed by critics as a 10/10 classic on par with Enter the Wu-Tang, as well as the best out of all the Wu-Tang solo releases. Like on all of those five previously mentioned albums, The RZA approached each MC with a different variation of “the Shaolin sound” that he pioneered, tweaking it to fit each of the various MC’s personalities. Method Man’s Tical was murky and as dank as the “methtical” he must have been smoking while Raekwon’s Cuban Linx had a much bigger, grander atmosphere which reflected the album’s Mafioso theme. Working with The GZA on Liquid Swords, RZA scaled back on the aggression and grandeur of previous albums and took a more methodical approach. While there are certainly bits of those elements worked into these instrumentals, RZA spent more effort on making GZA’s beats more complex while still maintaining a somewhat minimalistic approach that he’s famous for. There’s also a greater variety of sounds and styles on this record compared to something as (mostly) straightforward as 36 Cambers. Things can go from spunky (“Liquid Swords”) to spooky (“Gold”) to smooth and icy (“Shadowboxin’”) to classic Wu-Tang grit (“4th Camber”) providing the perfect canvas for The GZA to paint over with his considerable lyrical prowess, rhyming about drug dealing on "Gold" or his tremendous skill on the title track. His keen lyrics reveal the care he took in crafting them, equaling the care took by the RZA in crafting the beats he rhymes over. The RZA proves that he’s more than just boom-baps and piano samples with the concoctions of synths, strings, and horns he carefully mixed together to bring these instrumentals to life.
The album’s more manageable length also works in its favor and adds to its potency. Out of the early Wu-Tang solo efforts, Ghostface’s Ironman spanned sixteen tracks and lasted about an hour while Raekwon’s Cuban Linx spanned a whopping eighteen tracks and went on for over an hour. Liquid Swords, on the other hand, contains only thirteen tracks, and the thirteenth track is more of a bonus track if anything given that it’s a Killah Priest song, not a GZA or Wu-Tang song whatsoever. This renders the album a more focused and concentrated blast than others in the Wu-Tang saga, and this also leaves us with all killer and no filler, another plus on this album’s score sheet. The guest appearances and the personalities they bring don’t hurt either. Every member of the Clan is featured on here at least once, making Liquid Swords, in effect, a Wu-Tang Clan album.
In short, The GZA delivered big-time on this record and the material on here is just as valid as anything the Clan did on Enter the Wu-Tang. It’s all RZA produced deliciousness, and this reviewer has no complaints about anything having to do with what The Genius and his Wu-Brothers created here. It’s honestly difficult to write reviews for albums that you think either reach perfection or almost reach perfection, because there isn’t much to critique, and Liquid Swords is an album that easily reaches that level. To end things, if anyone wants a shocking reminder of a time when mainstream hip-hop artists cared more about skill than image and other fluff, or if you’re ignorant to all the Wu-Tang solo material out there, be sure to sojourn to any vendor of recorded sound and pick up this album immediately.