Review Summary: The best in East Coast hip-hop since 1995."I have decided to escape, to defy the shogun. Today I will begin walking the road to hell. But you will choose your own path. So, soon you may be seeing heaven. Choose the sword, and you will join me. Choose the ball and you join your mother, in death. You don’t understand my words, but you must choose. So… come boy, choose life or death."
With the release of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan garnered popular and critical acclaim. Sporting gritty and minimalistic production, an obsession with samurai and karate films, and a healthy dose of street humor, the album proved to be a milestone of hip-hop and a precursor to a whole series of Clan-related albums that would follow its success. Though The Gravediggaz's 6 Feet Down
and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
were among the first, GZA's Liquid Swords
is often considered superior to these releases, with its comic book cover art depicting members of Wu-Tang engaging in battle on a chess board.
Not unlike the Clan's previous effort, almost all of Liquid Swords
was produced by RZA, whose dark, foggy beats perfectly compliment the lyrical content and ingenius sampling work (This time using even better clips, most noticeably a long dialogue from Shogun Assassin
). Smooth soul legends such as Al Green and Stevie Wonder and cheesy '70s rock such as Three Dog Night are sampled unobtrusively, allowing melody to flow through the boom-bap.
"Liquid Swords" kicks the album off slowly with the previously mentioned samurai film excerpt, which fades into the song itself. Staccato keyboard and simple, dense beats allow GZA to do what he does best, spitting some of his sharpest lyrics with lines such as "Cause niggas styles are old like Mark 5 sneakers. Lyrics are weak, like clock radio speakers".
This helps bring one to understanding GZA's approach to lyrics, who tends to favor wordplay and thought-provoking schemes over verbosity and technicality, as the 'liquid swords' simile represents his words cutting through the air like liquid swords.
Musically, one of the most accomplished songs present on Liquid Swords
is "Gold", bearing a massive, thumping beat, dramatic strings, choirs, horns, and an eerie keyboard line. Lyrically, both "Labels" and "4th Chamber" are outstanding. The former cleverly uses the names of various record labels as GZA delivers more wack emcee disses, while the latter implements another martial art film sample what can easily be considered the most sinister beat here. Four members of the Clan deliver a verse right after another: Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest, RZA and GZA, providing insight into each emcee's style and the general Wu philosophy. RZA's verse particularly stands out, as he provides a flurry of words and apocalyptic ninja conspiracy themes; "Six million devils just died from the Bubonic Flu, or the Ebola Virus, under the reign of King Cyrus, you can see the weakness of a man right through his iris."
After such extraordinary heights, GZA surprisingly does not taper off with poor or second-rate material. Despite seeming more toned down and low-key compared to the rest of Liquid Swords
, tracks such as "Investigative Reports" are equal in strength and subtlety. "B.I.B.L.E", an acronym for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth", marks a significant change in tone; a nostalgic, sentimental feeling not present elsewhere. Here Killah Priest discusses hard times as a child, while seemingly criticizing and praising religion/spirituality at the same time ("Searched for the truth since my youth, and went to church since birth, but it wasn't worth the loot."
Twelves years ago this album was released, and yet it seems to be much shorter than it. In many ways, Liquid Swords
is as relevant as ever; underground hip-hop has taken but a few pages of Shaolin secrets that only GZA and other members of the Wu-Tang Clan possess. Somehow, if you can't find yourself enjoying this piece of martial rap, then you can at least find comfort in the fact that this is easily one of the greatest albums to be recorded, and you're missing out. As the Genius himself said, "Fake niggas get flipped."