GZA’s Rise to Prominence
The first time I heard GZA, I felt like he was directly speaking to me. Sure, I love all the drug rap, gum flap, gun clap lyrics like the next man, but something about the way GZA pushed knowledge really resonated with me. His lyrics are vivid but layered with a depth of an elite poet. It’s the week of his 55th birthday. I think it is important to reflect on his seminal classic that fathered the styles of countless rappers.
The Genius signed to Cold Chillin in 1991 but did not receive acclaim because his debut album, Words from the Genius, was not getting pushed and promoted by record executives. This album dropped before the formation of Wu-Tang in 1992 and the release of 36 Chambers in 1993. In 1995 GZA (Genius) released Liquid Swords to a hungry public. For the most part, fans had already tasted the diverse and eclectic NYC gritty grime sound that Wu-Tang had routinely delivered during that epoch.
Liquid Swords was the second album from the “Head of Voltron.” Consequently, it displayed the progression and evolution between these two albums. This transition accordingly illustrates how crucial both artistic license and support from the label are to deliver a masterpiece.
Looking Back at Liquid Swords
Atonal piano and string-heavy beats punctuate Liquid Swords; it’s lyrically and visually dope. GZA is concise throughout the entire album, focusing on the placement of each word and the power of brevity and succinct delivery. This no-frills approach creates a no-nonsense sentiment throughout the album and it would become a trademark of GZA throughout his career (half short and twice strong).
The terse delivery is far from spars and each bar is more potent than an inferior rapper’s whole 16. GZA’s confident delivery is definitive without coming off as lecturing or pedantic. The calculated construction of each GZA verse packs power through his distinct diction and liquid flow.
The Writing Process
GZA creates compact lyrics through a slow writing process instead of the lightning speed of writing of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (RAGU). GZA takes more time with his craft and routinely takes 2 to 3 days to write one song. This contrasts with Raekwon and Ghostface Killah and they lay down their lyrics within 45 minutes of hearing a RZA track.
RZA had a planned role for each member and a desired demographic for each general to maintain. GZA’s lane was targeted at intellectual college kids. RAGU was more gangster-oriented. And Method Man was the heartthrob panty raider.
Wu-Tang Sword Style
Within the Wu-tang sword style, the tongue is the sword. Amongst Clan members, GZA wielded the sharpest sword. The first single “I Gotcha Back” appeared on the Fresh soundtrack. Liquid Swords, the second single, is an iconic cult classic thanks to the dense lyric and depth of bars and the sample from Shogun Assassins. Released in Nov 1995, Liquid Swords has achieved cult status and is a seminal masterpiece in lyrically focused circles.
The classic artwork with chess and sword-wielding soldiers remains one of the most recognizable and iconic album covers of all time. Breaking down each track on this classic would defeat the purpose of this blog. Every track is a standout, stand-alone banger.
Liquid Swords Acclaim
He says it is his best album but not his best work lyrically. Ghostface is my personal Wu favorite, but GZA is the master. The dark ambiance with references to chess, philosophy, and criminal underbelly appeal to intellectual fans. And these fans, after all, emphasize substance over the prototypical gangster rap tracks from that era. The entire Clan appears on this album, including introducing Killah Priest on the classic cut “B.I.B.L.E.” Above all, the combination of complex lyricism and hypnotic atonal beats cemented the Wu sound for years to come.
Liquid Swords takes you on a cinematic journey with all five senses tingle from the finished product. It was produced solely in RZA’s basement. In retrospect, thank God it was not impacted by the 2 floods, which most impacted Deck’s debut. RZA’s trademark atmospheric production and spooky dense sounds layered with creepy street rhymes firmly place GZA in the hip-hop hall of fame.
Personal Connection to Liquid Swords
I’m a brown man of Asian descent. Consequently, the Asiatic imagery and sound appealed to me and had me hooked on the Clan. The grimy RZA production made my chest thump in conjunction with the top-notch lyricism of the GZA. This album went platinum in 2015 and is revered as a timeless classic. Ultimately, Liquid Swords solidifies GZA as a top-notch lyricist. If you haven’t heard this album yet, do the knowledge and check it out. It may change your perspective.