On May 28, 2014, anyone privy to the premiere of “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang caught a startling glimpse into the future as Young Thug squalled these immortal words: “ENnemLIbmLIBLIKubuhGETenDISssALLenbuGEHNEEUEHN.” Since then, many in the mumble rapper mold have stepped up: Future, swimming backstroke up a river of codeine and Auto-Tune to mainstream success; Fetty Wap, whose infectious baying can still be heard on radios across the globe; even a new wave comprising rappers like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, who have drawn the ire of respected figures such as Pete Rock, Anderson .Paak, and Ab-Soul by flouting the history and traditions of hip hop (and of speech).
Of course, emcees who place a premium on the meaningful, articulate use of language still remain relevant. Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, for instance, both enjoy enormous, devoted followings. Yet the vanguard of rap seems to consist primarily of marble mouths, more concerned with turning up than speaking intelligibly. Full disclosure: I think Young Thug is a true (if inconsistent) innovator, and when Lil Yachty comes in on “Broccoli,” I start hopping around with joy. However, if the prospect of rap being overrun by mumblers fills you with anxiety, know you have GZA’s razor-sharp, lyrically peerless “Liquid Swords” to fall back on.
In the halcyon, prelapsarian mid-’90s, where emcees like Nas could supposedly skyrocket to legend status based solely on their skill with the pen, GZA still stood alone. Even the other, uniformly top-tier members of the seminal Wu-Tang Clan prostrated themselves before “the Genius,” as Wu’s biggest star Method Man explained. “He’s the head, let’s put it that way. We form like Voltron, and GZA happens to be the head,” he said in the interview appended to “Can It Be All So Simple.” Indeed, GZA’s first solo outing after Wu-Tang’s explosive debut showcased his intensely cerebral nature and emphasis on lyrics above all else. He doesn’t waste ink; he thinks, and “Liquid Swords” is thus all about “murderous rhymes tight from genuine craft,” as GZA proclaims on “Duel of the Iron Mic.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a rapper with as strong a handle on and as abundant a love for words as the Genius. According to Polygraph, which traffics in “visually-driven essays” about pop culture, GZA has the second-largest vocabulary in hip hop, and he draws from it liberally as he interlocks internal rhyme after internal rhyme like pieces in a puzzle. Any given verse is dense with intricate constructions. “And from that point, the God made a statement / Draftin’ tracements, replacements in basements / Materials in sheet-rock to sound proof the beatbox / And microscopic optics to see through the boxes / Obnoxious topic,” he raps on “Living in the World Today.” He also has a novelist’s knack for literary devices: Genius (the lyrics website) counts 11 similes and 13 metaphors on the title track alone, with the Genius (the rapper) tossing out the word “like” more frequently than a valley girl. Couplets such as “I flow like the blood on a murder scene, like a syringe / On some wild out shit to insert a fiend,” evince his near-Shakespearean facility with language.
GZA, of course, is perfectly aware of his skill and enthusiastically carries on the ancient hip-hop tradition of rhyming about how good he is at rhyming. In the process, he betrays one of his favorite pastimes: dispatching weaker emcees. The second line of the whole album is, after all, “In mic fights I swing swords and cut clowns.” These fantasies pepper the album, with GZA executing the deed aggressively (with “double-edged guillotines” and “fatal flying spikes”) or subtly (“I’ll be that whiskey in your liver”). Much of his disdain for his victims stems from their single-minded pursuit of a record deal, as he explains on “Shadowboxin’”: Instead of “[breaking] through like the Wu, unexpectedly” as they should, they “flood the seminar trying to orbit this corporate industry.” Yet his main problem with the competition? Their misplaced priorities make them disgracefully shabby when it comes to the craft itself. He tellingly refers to them as “non-visual”; meanwhile, GZA has an eye like Scorsese. While it has become a cliche to refer to any Wu-Tang project as “cinematic,” it is hard to avoid that word when it is built into the Genius’s style. As he told British music magazine “Select” in 1996, “I’m on a different level, trying to be cinematic…I’m tryin’ to make it more visual.”
He succeeds wildly in his aims: Listening to “Liquid Swords” with your eyes closed feels like GZA has set up shop inside your head, pointing a projector at the backs of your eyelids. For instance, when he dips into mafioso rap, the subgenre resurrected by Wu compatriot Raekwon, the results are stunning. On “Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hills 10304,” he reels off vivid, imaginative vignettes, featuring “bombs in bottles of champagne” and an “ex-worker [who] tried to smuggle a half a key / In his left leg, even underwent surgery / They say his pirate limp gave him away / As the Feds rushed him coming through U.S. customs.”
“Liquid Swords” brims with such powerfully evocative touches. On “Gold,” GZA waits for the subways to rumble overhead so he may inconspicuously execute his rivals, who “pushed up on the block and made the dope sales drop / Like the crash in the Dow Jones stock.” In the next verse, a man runs out of ammunition, and “his Glock clicks like high-heeled shoes on parquet floors.” RZA’s signature pummeling drums and discordant samples amplify the eerie cold-bloodedness of GZA’s scenes, as does the genuinely chilling dialogue lifted from martial arts films: The album opens with a child quietly informing the audience that his father decapitated “a hundred and thirty-one lords” for a shogun whose “brain was infected by devils.”
Of course, GZA’s subject matter is not limited to braggadocio and creepy violence. On “I Gotcha Back,” he advises and reassures his nephews, all while painting a painful portrait of his upbringing. “My lifestyle was so far from well / Could've wrote a book with a title ‘Age 12 and Going Through Hell,’” he raps, before offering up this heartbreaking image: “Little shorties take walks to the schoolyard / Trying to solve the puzzles to why is life so hard.” On “Swordsman,” he urges the idea of shunning dogma and thinking for yourself: “Cause at a young age, I was molded in a religion I relied on / And got caught up in superstition […] / But with knowledge of self from off the shelf / Made things seemed complicated now small like elves.”
No matter the topic, GZA brings intelligence and eloquence, an approach which served him well in the end: Twenty years later, “Liquid Swords” has endured. Today, its varied subject matter, rich details, and considered lyricism make it the perfect respite from a world where thoughtful rap is in short supply. If hearing Lil Yachty haltingly rap “I know you want this for life / Taking pictures with all my ice” leaves you paralyzed with existential dread, you can always throw on “Liquid Swords” and, as RZA intoned on the title track, let GZA “take y’all back to the source.”
Tomorrow's Harvard Lecturer: Wu-Tang Member GZA
Wu-Tang Clan Member Visits HarvardA packed auditorium erupted in applause on Thursday evening as the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA delivered some original rhymes and reflected on his life and career in an event hosted by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum in the Science Center. Although GZA, born Gary Grice, has spent much of his adult life in front of sold-out venues, the rapper expressed nervousness as he began his monologue.
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