Happy 20th Anniversary to GZA’s sophomore album Liquid Swords, originally released November 7, 1995.
The late John Wooden, the legendary coach who transformed my alma mater UCLA into a college basketball juggernaut during the 1960s and 1970s, once declared that “the best competition I have is against myself to become better.” Extending Wooden’s philosophy of self-awareness and ambition to the hip-hop world, if I may, no group has embodied these ideals more profoundly than the pride of Shaolin, the Wu-Tang Clan.
Surrounded by an unparalleled abundance of songwriting and rhyming talent within the immediate family, it’s no wonder that each Wu-Tang emcee is eternally devoted to nurturing his competitive instincts, perfecting his game, and preserving the group’s impenetrable legacy. And in my opinion, if forced to identify one group member that best exemplifies the Wu’s professionalism and penchant for pristine poetics, it’s the man born Gary Grice, a.k.a. The Genius, a.k.a. GZA.
Arguably the most soft-spoken but lyrically expansive of the Wu rhymeslayers, GZA possesses one of the largest vocabularies in hip-hop, second only to Aesop Rock, according to a 2014 research project that analyzed the number of unique words used by emcees. It should also be noted that RZA, Ghostface Killah and the Wu-Tang Clan collective are ranked in the study’s top 10. As GZA explains it, his appreciation for words and natural gift for connecting them to form rhymes emerged “Maybe around the age of eleven. Rhyming started off for me with nursery rhymes, Mother Goose, and all those other songs and rhymes that we learn while growing up. I pretty much knew a lot of those by heart, word for word. And then I just started writing my own rhymes, taking from other stories and other works, and blending and mixing them together, until I actually started creating my own stuff.”
In the late ‘80s, a handful of years before the Wu-Tang Clan was spawned and Grice adopted the GZA moniker, the Brooklyn native formed a group called FOI: Force of the Imperial Master with his cousins Robert Diggs and Russell Jones, subsequently known more affectionately as RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Playing local gigs and battling fellow New York City emcees as part of the trio ultimately helped Grice secure a contract with Cold Chillin’ Records, home to established Juice Crew stalwarts including Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Masta Ace, MC Shan, and Roxanne Shanté at the time. Adopting the moniker The Genius, his appropriately titled and underappreciated debut LP Words From the Genius was released in early 1991, but made only minor ripples critically and commercially.
In the wake of the album’s disappointing reception, Grice updated his stage name to GZA and reunited with RZA and ODB, along with half-a-dozen other aspiring emcees, to form the mighty Wu-Tang Clan. In November of 1993, the group unveiled its landmark debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which had GZA’s verbal stamp on six of its thirteen tracks, including “Clan in Da Front,” which featured GZA’s rhymes exclusively.
With the galvanizing momentum of Enter the Wu-Tang’s whirlwind success showing no signs of dissipating, RZA, the group’s mastermind, wasted no time in executing the strategy for the Wu-Tang brand’s proliferation through a string of follow-up solo releases. Method Man was up first with 1994’s exceptional Tical, with ODB’s idiosyncratically brilliant Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and Raekwon’s masterpiece Only Built 4 Cuban Linx hitting stores soon thereafter in 1995. Though all three albums are bred from a common Wu-Tang aesthetic and RZA’s creative vision, they’re also uniquely crafted song suites in their own right that established the bar astronomically high for the next Wu-Tang comrade in line. With Liquid Swords, however, GZA not only matched his peers’ precedent for quality, but quite miraculously, he transcended it, introducing a new high-water mark for Wu-Tang solo efforts.
A metaphor for the lethal, dome-splitting power of GZA’s rhymes, the album title was inspired by the 1993 film Legend of the Liquid Sword, as GZA explained to the now defunct UK music magazine Select: “Liquid Swords is a concept of being lyrically sharp, flowing like liquid metal—mercury, y’know? It comes from this flick, Legend of the Liquid Sword, where people would get their head cut off but it would still be on their shoulders. No one else would notice, because the sword was so sharp. Wu-Tang is a sword style, and this here is the sharpest.”
Before even removing the cover wrap from the album, the first thing that grabbed my attention—and I suspect yours too—was the unforgettably vibrant album artwork courtesy of revered comic artist Denys Cowan. Liquid Swords came out while I was studying at UCLA, and I remember my good friend and roommate at the time coming home one day with a poster-sized reprint of the album cover, which he lovingly adorned on our apartment walls, as a shrine of sorts to the LP’s greatness. According to GZA, he came up with the vision for the artwork a few years before recording Liquid Swords, and very nearly offered up his idea for the artwork that was to grace the Wu’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” single, but opted to keep it for his album instead.
A wise decision, as Cowan was able to accurately translate his vision to paper and it remains one of the more iconic album covers of all-time. GZA obviously endorsed the artist’s finished product, but he also embraced some of the unfinished product, as Cowan recalls, “What surprised me was that GZA liked a lot of the concept art and wanted to use it as raw and sketchy as it was. Most were done directly in pen and never intended to be seen by anyone! That’s the art you see for the interior cd book – the fight on the chessboard and the kids in the oversized shirts, all that.”
Upon first listen, and as we’ve come to expect from any RZA-blessed composition, Liquid Swords’ most immediately striking feature is its expertly crafted, uncompromisingly imaginative sound. Consistent with his signature cinematic production approach, RZA weaves in dialogue from the 1980 Jidaigeki samurai film Shogun Assassin to startling effect. The contextually chosen film snippets—and particularly the creepy musings of the samurai’s child that kick off the album—combine with RZA’s sinister soundscapes for what is arguably the darkest, most haunting Wu-affiliated album made to date.
With repeated and more focused listens, however, it becomes undeniably apparent that the album’s core strength derives from GZA’s unbridled imagination and intricate wordplay. A cerebral affair that strokes the listener’s mind in a multitude of ways, Liquid Swords showcases its creator’s unrivaled ability to leverage inventive metaphors and similes to convey through vivid, often allusive imagery what other emcees might communicate in more literal terms. A methodical emcee and dedicated master of his craft, GZA refuses to take the process of songwriting lightly, and his devotion glows throughout album. When he spoke with Wax Poetics, he explained that his songwriting approach is “Real slow. I mean, Raekwon and Ghostface can step in and record a song in about forty-five minutes. I on the other hand, would often go back and finish rhymes that I started. I would say I pieced things together [more] slowly then. Songs generally take me two to three days to write. Sometimes I take different sentences and put them together.” Ultimately GZA’s work ethic pays off, as the rhymes he sprays for the duration of Liquid Swords sustains the listener’s undivided attention throughout.
GZA’s humility and sense of camaraderie with his Wu-Tang brethren are also on full display across the 13-song suite, as nearly half of the album’s verses are guest-spots, reinforcing that while GZA exudes confidence on the mic, he’s not so narcissistic as to deny his brothers the opportunity to shine right alongside him. The album features three Wu-Tang blessed posse cuts, with Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa and Ol’ Dirty Bastard contributing to “Duel of the Iron Mic,” Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and RZA appearing on “4th Chamber,” and Ghostface making a repeat performance with Raekwon and U-God on “Investigative Reports.”
Curiously enough, on the provocative “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”—which is included as a bonus track on the CD version of the album only—GZA doesn’t even appear at all. Instead, he defers exclusive rhyming duties to Killah Priest, who ends up nailing his verses, as he details and deconstructs some of the more common assumptions about religion. Produced by 4th Disciple and featuring a melodic sample of Ohio Players’ “Our Love Has Died,” “B.I.B.L.E.” is even more of an anomaly beyond GZA’s noticeable absence, as it’s the only song on the album not produced by RZA.
Though the album is best absorbed and appreciated as the cohesive sum of its individual parts, a handful of tracks stand out as particularly memorable fare. The jaunty, album-opening title track kicks the album off with a braggadocious bang, as GZA wastes no time in chopping down wack emcees with his lyrical weaponry. One of the smoothest productions RZA has ever delivered, the hypnotic “Shadowboxin’” is propelled by the dynamic one-two punch of GZA and Method Man. “Labels” represents one of the album’s most ingenious moments, as GZA cleverly incorporates the names of record labels into his verses, as he laments their corporate machinations and debunks the misleading mystique of securing a record deal. Few companies escape his diatribe, as he calls out the more revered urban labels like Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Death Row, Bad Boy Wild Pitch, Uptown, and Priority, as well as his former label, Cold Chillin.’
“Living in the World Today” is a laid-back, percussion-heavy track that allows GZA plenty of space to flex his witticisms, most memorable of which is the concluding line “Father You See King the Police.” Upon cursory listen, it seems like a bit of a non sequitur statement, until you realize that it’s actually a partially veiled way of articulating the same sentiment that N.W.A proclaimed toward the boys in blue on their 1988 debut LP Straight Outta Compton. The Inspectah Deck collaboration “Cold World” is a sobering exploration of the struggles and disillusionment of ghetto life, and the undeniable allure of crime as a means to the CREAM. GZA’s opening verse flips the classic tale “The Night Before Christmas” to more chilling effect: “It was the night before New Year’s / and all through the fucking projects / Not a handgun was silent / not even a Tec.” Indeed, “Cold World” is the album’s darkest track, but also one of the most gripping.
As anyone who reads the Long Play Love column can attest to, I tend not to focus too much on how an album has performed commercially, leaving the chart positions and sales figures to the good folks contributing to Wikipedia. However, I was thrilled to learn that Liquid Swords was finally certified platinum just last month, nearly two decades after its original release. Long overdue recognition for one of hip-hop’s most magnificent albums of all-time, I’d say.
Whenever I ask others to name their favorite Wu solo album, most of their answers invariably come down to one of two choices: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Liquid Swords. I consider both albums to be bona fide masterpieces, but for me, Liquid Swords stands as the all-around greatest Wu effort this side of Enter the Wu-Tang, from a combined sonic and lyrical perspective. Twenty years on since the first time I laid ears on it, and it still blows my mind each and every time I press play.
My Favorite Song: “Shadowboxin’”