This is the second installment in a ten part series where I’ll be counting down my 10 favorite hip hop albums of all time in reverse order, from 10 to 1. I’ll be releasing one album per week, for 10 weeks. You can read Part I here.
Last week we started the countdown with a well-known album from one of the most successful and popular rappers of all time. This week we’re gonna change it up a bit. This artist is well known by name, but most casual/radio hip hop fans haven’t taken the time to dive into his catalogue. There’s a lot to listen to, but let me clue you in on something – you only need to listen to his debut album to get the best of the best. As is the case with a lot of artists across all genres of music, their early stuff is widely regarded as their best and most pure form of artistic expression.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like our number 9 artist sold out. Not by a long shot. He’s stayed true to his craft by focusing on his impressive lyrical talent instead of chasing mainstream success. His fans will be loyal to him no matter what, and he knows this. He’s one of the main cogs in hip hop’s largest collective group. The number of people associated with them grows every year, but this man was there from the inception, and is still regarded by many as the most talented emcee of the bunch.
So let me introduce to you, the Genius…GZA.
Number 9: GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
It was my Junior year of high school (my prime blunt riding days) when I was first introduced to Liquid Swords by my boy. I was already familiar with 36 Chambers (foreshadow?…), but hadn’t yet dove into the rest of the Wu-Tang discography. I was still getting my feet wet in the hip hop game and was in the process of combing through the hundreds of classic albums I hadn’t yet experienced. My buddy hopped in my car, pulled out the CD, and asked if I was down to listen to it on the ride. All it took was one look at the cover art and I was hooked (seriously, that’s one of the best album covers ever). He popped the disc in, we lit up, and went off on a musical adventure that would forever change our lives.
The first thing I think of when I’m pondering what Liquid Swords means to me is the production. This was peak RZA. His early-mid 90s production defined a style of beats that I like to call “Dungeon Rap.” These are heavy, dreary, sample-based beats that make you feel like you’re in a damp, dark cave and something bad is gonna happen to you. Some of the tracks on this album are straight-up unsettling. When we first listened to “Swordsman” on that ride, we were driving in the on a dark road out in some empty town. The combination of that song with our backwoods setting made me legitimately scared. Same thing with “Gold.” I’m not ashamed to admit it. Those beats are creepy as fuck. The samples RZA uses sound like they’re picked from a bucket of bad eggs, yet he somehow makes them work over these simple drum beats blended together with kung fu movie clips.
The album kicks off with two classics. The title track starts us with an eerie dialogue from what appears to be a young child in a kung fu movie, before seamlessly transitioning into one of the more unique beats in hip hop history. The way RZA samples the organ makes this track fun and playful while still maintaining the overarching darkness of the album. Then we get into what many people say is the best cut on the album, “Duel of the Iron Mic.” With it’s beautiful piano sample and killer features (Inspectah Deck per usual owns it), it’s one of the lighter sounding tracks the album has to offer. Definitely more palatable to the casual hip hop fan.
The album hits it’s strongest point in the middle on tracks 6-7-8. I wish I could tell you what it is about the song “Labels” that really resonates with me, but I can’t. Most people gloss over that track, but it remains in my rotation of unskippables. GZA goes HARD at record labels and their shake downs of artists, as he’s made a habit of throughout his career. My favorite line is, “My priority is that I’m first priority / I bone a secret out a bitch in a sorority.” It’s so badass and fun to rap along with. We then get back into the dungeon rap on “4th Chamber.” This track is as close as the album gets to a BANGER. RZA samples a crunchy electric guitar during the last few bars of every rapper’s verses, giving it a hard rock/metal vibe. And the drum and bass pattern is hypnotizing (dun-dun-BOOM, dun-dun-BOOM). Finally, we get the low-key, mellow collaboration with Method Man, “Shadowboxing.” This was initially my favorite cut on the album. It probably still is if you put a gun to my head, although the title track is a strong second. Meth and GZA trade HOT verses throughout the whole song, competing to out-duel each other in this emcee standoff. To me, Meth takes the crown with his unique rhyme scheme. The way his first two lines rhyme, then he starts over on the third line, which becomes the new rhyme scheme for the next two lines. I realize that makes absolutely no sense, but if you listen you’ll know what I’m saying. And the little “oh man” sample that RZA uses throughout the entirety of the track? SO. DAMN. CATCHY. It’s really what keeps me coming back to this song over and over.
The album closes with three solid cuts (two if you didn’t buy the CD). I mentioned the ultimate dungeon rap beat “Swordsman” to start this review, which is followed by one of the singles, “I Gotcha Back.” This is actually one of the more skillfully arranged hip hop beats RZA has ever created. The piano and horns counter each other PERFECTLY. When one is falling, the other is rising. Then he’ll flip the horns in the verses. In terms of a “composition” in early 90’s sample-based hip hop, this is as good as it gets. Finally, the bonus track “B.I.B.L.E.” closes us out. I’m not exactly sure when they recorded this, but the production clearly doesn’t fit the rest of the album. Meaning, if you threw this track in the middle of the record, it would feel VERY out of place. It doesn’t have that same murky, dungeon sound that the rest of the tracks do. However, with all that being said, it’s actually an awesome track. “BIBLE” (standing for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”) is a very clever play on the acronym. We get to see GZA really shine as the emcee wise beyond his years. A true Genius, as his name would suggest.
There’s really not a bad track on this album. Everything feels so cohesive together. I’d say the weakest track is “Hells Wind Staff,” but that’s just personal taste. I didn’t mention “Investigative Reports” or “Living in the World Today,” but some would argue that those are two of the best tracks on the album. Again, all of these lists are my opinions. Nothing is right or wrong.
Would I recommend this album to someone who’s a borderline hip hop fan? No, probably not. I understand that anything that came out of Wu-Tang in the early 90s might not be for everyone. Personally, it produced some of my favorite artists, albums, and songs. But I’m not going to force feed it down someone’s throat who I know won’t like it. It’s an acquired taste. However, for anyone looking to expand their palate and dive deeper into the building blocks of New York hip hop, you should give this album a shot. It’s not very long, and there’s plenty of features that will keep you interested. That’s one of the great thing about Wu-Tang solo albums – they have so many features. They almost feel like group albums. You don’t even hear GZA on a track like “4th Chamber” until the very last verse. It’s one of the many characteristics I love about Wu-Tang. The collective involvement of the group on solo projects.
GZA isn’t for everyone. He’s not full of energy, and the basic ear will sometimes find that boring. But if you sit down and really listen to his lyrics, he’s one of the most talented emcees we’ve ever had. Line for line, there aren’t many rappers who can compete with him, and a lot of his best rhymes live on this very album. Liquid Swords is regarded as a cornerstone album in the hip hop genre, and it will forever be one of my favorites.