In 1995 The Wu-Tang Clan was still riding high on the runaway success of their debut album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), released two years earlier. It established the nine-member New York rap collective as a dominant force and they quickly built on its success with highly acclaimed solo albums from Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Raekwon that only furthered the frenzy among a rabid fan base eager to get their hands on anything Wu-related. GZA (aka The Genius) capitalized on all that forward momentum with Liquid Swords, a solo album which was perhaps the purest distillation of everything that was unique to The Wu-Tang Clan’s corner of the rap world: using strategies from chess and kung-fu as metaphors for lyrical technique, RZA’s stark beats and frequent in-house guest raps from other Clan members. Perhaps the GZA (real name: Gary Grice) stayed so close to the template that RZA had set up for Wu-Tang to operate under because he understood the value of what they had achieved in the industry a little better than the others. After all the Brooklyn native was a few years older than the rest of the Clan, and more experienced too, having already made a solo foray into the rap world with a pre-Wu album, Words From The Genius, released to little notice in 1991.
He demonstrated his maturity in the type of MC he was, and wasn’t, on Liquid Swords. He wasn’t particularly concerned with parties, appealing to the ladies, issuing idle threats of violence or making you laugh (which we know he can do from hilarious cameos in Coffee & Cigarettes and The Chappelle Show). His style was a dead-serious continuation of the classic MC skills that rappers like Rakim and EPMD popularized in the second half of the 1980s. He best shows off his microphone prowess with the dazzling display of lyrical wordplay on “Labels”, stealthily integrating a laundry list of labels names that had wronged him into his raps. His skills as a battle rapper get flexed alongside Method Man on “Shadowboxin’“, and he conjures up vivid tales of the ghetto-as-warzone on “Cold World” and “Investigative Reports”. If perhaps GZA’s tendency toward weighty subject matter and academic approach to MC’ing don’t sound like a ton of fun on paper, it doesn’t matter much because he’s such a gifted lyricist and storyteller, and RZA’s beats are so sharp and accomplished, that they’re practically impossible to dislike. The only song that doesn’t deliver 100% is the final track, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)”, where GZA’s religious musings don’t mesh well with the themes of the rest of the album, and neither does the run-of-the-mill production from 4th Disciple.
If you picked up Get On Down’s deluxe reissue of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers in 2011 then you already know that these guys take their reissues very seriously. They don’t disappoint here either. Housed in a large cardboard box, they’ve remastered the original album, adding a depth to the sound that wasn’t fully possible with mid-‘90s CD technology. They’ve also added a second disc of the full album sans GZA’s raps, showcasing RZA’s instrumental tracks. You may not feel moved to listen to it as frequently as the album-proper, but it does illustrate just how good RZA was as a producer and beat-maker during this period. Beyond the musical elements, the new reissue also comes with beefed up liner notes and a set of chess pieces. While the 6″ x 6″ board found inside the cardboard box probably won’t be used for too many games, including a functional chess sets elevates the reissue to a fun fetish item for collectors. Given their level of attention to detail and over-the-top packaging efforts, I’m hoping Get On Down gets their paws on more early Wu albums to reissue.
1. Liquid Swords
2. Duel Of The Iron Mic
3. Living In The World Today
5. Cold World
7. 4th Chamber
9. Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hills 10304
10. Investigative Reports
12. I Gotcha Back
13. B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
(Disc 2 has instrumental versions of the same songs)