Saturday, December 2, 2017

Past Greatness: November '17

Welcome to the 12th installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album is one that analyzed and criticized the cruelty of the gangster lifestyle whilst standing waist-high in it

GZA | Liquid Swords
1995 | Gangsta Rap | Listen

In Wu-Tang Clan's iconic New York world, there is no summer. There's no spring, no fall. Winter exists in a perpetual state, forever dampening your steps while silencing the echoes. RZA's production wasn't just cold; it was stark, empty, lifeless. It concretized the sounds of alley-ways at night, with periodic taxis passing, steam lifting from sewers, blood dripping from the latest stabbing victim. Wu-Tang's era of dominance - 1993 to 1996 - saw the release of numerous would-be classics, including their genre-revisioning Enter The 36 Chambers, along with Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ghostface Killah's Ironman, and GZA's Liquid Swords. It's this last one that'll be our topic of discussion for today. For, regardless of the praise rightfully bestowed upon Wu-Tang's debut, no album analyzed in better detail or replicated with better clarity more than Liquid Swords. If one must, GZA's masterpiece is to New York City's night as Nas' Illmatic is to the day. To me, they truly represent the yin and yang of East Coast Hip-Hop's golden era. While heaps of praise has been handed out to both, there's something mysterious left unexplained in Liquid Swords' wake. It's sinister, unforgiving, and cruel. For while Illmatic elucidated the problems of inner-city street life, the aforementioned Wu-Tang albums living through it, Liquid Swords, and GZA, scheme in a class where both perspectives battle against one another in a game of chess.

Rarely do Hip-Hop albums own the title of atmospherically-rich. It's a general side effect to the blabbermouth nature of rhyming, where 16 bars and a wordy hook pass ownership back and forth until the track's conclusion. There's not much room left for uncertainty, or bewilderment, or appreciation, as the rapper, as poet, leaves you little wiggle room in the field of ambiguity. That principle doesn't change with Liquid Swords, it merely adapts. GZA's a wordsmith like few others, capable of bending hyper-literacy into layman jargon without anyone batting an eyelash. Some simple math will examine how. Let's take the 20 bars of 'Duel Of The Iron Mic's' opening verse as example A. There's a total of 147 words, 78 of them are five letters or above. Inputing the verse into a grammar site and the suggested reading label turns up: College Graduate. With a line like "the liquid soluble that made up the chemistry, a gaseous element that burned down your ministry," that designation seems apt. Where GZA's lyrical prowess comes into play is when he tilts that dialect to the streets, as seen a mere two lines back: "Yo, picture bloodbaths and elevator shafts, like these murderous rhymes tight from genuine craft." Comparing and combining those two bars, which exist mere seconds from each other, and you see where Liquid Swords' enigma comes from. The production does a marvelous job, as do the savage samples, but GZA's own words help to enrich the atmosphere of New York City at night by experiencing then explaining.

Gangsta Rap has, in recent years, finally received a criticizing scorn from fellow Hip-Hop outlets. clipping.'s CLPPNG is a prime example, an album that finds lead Daveed Diggs walking a mile in a gang-bangers shoes to show you why you shouldn't. Glorification in the genre was at an all-time high during Wu-Tang's era, with the collective certainly being apart of the problem. However, with just how surreal Liquid Swords is, along with GZA's conscious-leaning examinations, I can't help but get the feeling that he's criticizing the lifestyle too. Standout track, and one of East Coat Hip-Hop's most visceral (alongside Mobb Deep's 'Shook Ones Part. 2'), 'Cold World' does a sensational job of setting GZA in the center of conflict, using him as a purveyor of the systemic issues surrounding him. GZA's dry, didactic way of rapping indicates that, unlike his fellow Wu-Tang partners, the Brooklyn-born emcee doesn't revel in the cold, cold world. His first verse, one of the coldest in Hip-Hop history, foretells of a night before New Years when "not a handgun was silent." The way GZA expounds upon the incidents bears resemblance to that of a detective surveying the area and using deductive reasoning ("gunshots shatter first-floor window panes, shells hit the ground and blood stained the dice game"). GZA doesn't hold back on the details, and the deadly serious tone he takes offers listeners an all-too realistic glance into the daily problems faced by those in the ghetto.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Liquid Swords, when analyzed critically, is GZA's devious use of the various Wu-Tang features as characters in this street play. Clearly, using 'Cold World' or the socially-aware 'Living In The World Today' as evidence, GZA doesn't abide by gang rules. Many of the other Wu-Tang members did at the time, glorifying violence and drug usage in the process. It's here, on Liquid Swords, that you see the separation between GZA and his posse. Take 'Gold.' Ignoring the sublimely grimy RZA beat, 'Gold' is entirely GZA-driven apart from the opening monologue by Method Man. An intro that finds Meth acting as a hot-tempered drug dealer ("anything from 220 to 140 that's mine, y'all need to step the fuck off"). This, moments before GZA dissects the problematic drug culture for the entirety of the song, going so far as to use heavy satire in the chorus. There's also 'Hell's Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304,' a track that begins with a lengthy skit about a drug deal gone wrong, GZA acting as the quiet voice of reason as RZA and Masta Killa confront a mobster named Greco. This, again, moments before GZA pontificates over one long verse the aftereffects of high-level drug dealing using symbolism, imagery, and analogies to get his point across.

This is all to say that Liquid Swords is, quite easily, the most consciously-aware Gangsta Rap album of all-time. Illmatic would have that mantle had it not been for Nas' self-separation, rapping about past encounters from the perspective of an aged, and far-too mature 19-year-old. On Liquid Swords, there's numerous times where GZA finds himself back at the root of the problem, whether it's the housing projects or the shady alley-ways between them. Couple that with RZA's soon-to-be boilerplate beats, ones that purposely sounded muddy, muffled, and unmastered, and Liquid Swords quite loftily becomes an intimate dissection of inner-city conditions. On top of this, even with his supreme intellect, GZA never looks down on the listener, never sounds pretentious, and only ever elaborates upon events, beliefs, or convictions if they're pertinent to his life. That's all to say; Liquid Swords doesn't have the answers. It never intends to offer solutions. That's without including the heartfelt closer, B.I.B.L.E., entirely handled by Killah Priest. There's something to say about GZA's modesty that, for all the grim and dirt and filth he stepped through to uncover the truth on Liquid Swords, he leaves the LP's heaviest track, consciously-speaking, to another rapper. What a beautiful finale to New York's darkest night. 'B.I.B.L.E.' is noticeably brighter, crisper, and clearer than anything else on Liquid Swords, and through Killah Priest's prescient sermon, we learn that to get where we ought to be, peace and respect must be glorified; not violence and ignorance. A lovely message to end an album of such historical magnitude.


  1. Replies
    1. What would you suggest I do with it? I've always thought about it! But being able to write reviews is one thing, speaking the reviews is another lol