Thursday, February 08, 2007

GZA The Genius

The Genius, aka The GZA, was the most cerebral MC in The Wu-Tang Clan, as well as perhaps the most acclaimed. His cool, precise flow and intricate, literate rhymes weren't as theatrical as Method Man or Ol'Dirty Bastard, the two biggest commercial stars to spring from the collective. But among hip-hop aficionados, the Genius was revered for his flawless technique and lyrical dexterity, and was considered by many to be the best pure rapper in the entire Clan. The Genius was born Gary Grice on August 22, 1966, in Staten Island, NY, and shuttled between several other New York boroughs with various relatives during his childhood. He started learning rhymes by the earliest hip-hop MCs while spending time in the Bronx, and returned to Staten Island to share them with his cousins, who later became Ol'Dirty Bastard and The RZA. In fact, the three of them first teamed up in the early '80s as part of an obscure group called All in Together Now.Time passed, and the Genius landed a recording contract with Cold Chillin', which, unfortunately, was nearing the end of its brilliant run. In 1991, he became the only future Wu-Tang member to release a solo album prior to The Clan's formation, with Words From The Genius. Produced mostly by Easy Mo Bee, the album flopped badly and, creatively, did little to hint at the Genius' future standing. Conflicts with the label sent the Genius packing, and he reteamed with a similarly disenchanted RZA (fresh off a failed stint with Tommy Boy) and Ol'Dirty Bastard to co-found The Wu-Tang Clan. Adding six other friends and associates, the group became an underground sensation and took the rap world by storm with its 1993 debut, Enter The Wu-TAng (36 Chambers). Their innovative contract allowed each member to sign a solo deal with whatever label they chose, and the Genius wound up on Geffen. In 1994, his first post Wu solo track, "I Gotcha Back," appeared on the soundtrack of the film Fresh. His second solo album, Liquid Swords, followed in 1995 and was hailed as a hip-hop classic thanks to its coolly understated menace. While it didn't make him a star on the level of Method Man, the album did sell well, reaching the pop Top Ten and falling one spot short of the top of the R&B charts. There were no big mainstream hits, but the title cut, "Cold World," and "Shadowboxin'" all did well on the rap charts.Following The Clan's 1997 sophomore set, Wu-Tang Forever, the Genius returned to the solo arena with 1999's Beneath The Surface. While critics didn't praise it quite as lavishly as Liquid Swords, it was another well-received effort (especially compared to some of the lackluster follow-ups elsewhere in the Wu-Tang camp), and it topped the R&B album charts. After reconvening with The Wu for 2000's The W and 2001's Iron Flag, the Genius dropped his fourth solo effort, Legend of The Liquid Sword, in late 2002, consolidating his reputation as one of the most skillful rappers around.

GZA - Words From The Genius (1990: Cold Chillin')
When The Wu-Tang Clan came out of the gate in late 1993, they brought with them a new style, a style that literally changed the rap game just as Dr. Dre had done a year earlier. But even though it seemed like The Wu came from nowhere, they actually had a rather modest beginning. Words From the Genius is that beginning. Released in 1991 on the once-mighty Cold Chillin label, the album features the Genius, and to a lesser degree RZA (here known as Prince Rakeem), in rather pedestrian form (sorry, no Marley Marl beats here). When you consider Cold Chillin's roster in 1991 — most notably Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap — Words From the Genius seems to be a perfect fit. Like those two rappers, the Genius merged bravado with the darkside of street life and delivered his street-smart rhymes with muscle. The Genius unfortunately sounds kind of flat here; not just because you've come to know him as GZA, the most insightful and lyrically dexterous member of The Wu, but mostly because he hasn't yet honed those qualities, instead emulating his Cold Chillin peers. Wu devotees should nonetheless find Words From the Genius at least somewhat of a novelty, and Cold Chillin fans will find that it's a decent, though often dismissed, entry in the label's canon.
Often acclaimed as the best Wu-Tang solo project of all, Liquid Swords cemented the Genius/GZA's reputation as the best pure lyricist in the group — and one of the best of the '90s. Rich in allusions and images, his cerebral, easy-flowing rhymes are perhaps the subtlest and most nuanced of any Wu MC, as underscored by his smooth, low-key delivery. The Genius' eerie calm is a great match for RZA's atmospheric production, which is tremendously effective in this context; the kung fu dialogue here is among the creepiest he's put on record, and he experiments quite a bit with stranger sounds and more layered tracks. Not only is RZA in top form, but every Clan member makes at least one appearance on the album, making it all the more impressive that Liquid Swords clearly remains The Genius' showcase throughout. All of his collaborators shape themselves to his quietly intimidating style, giving Liquid Swords a strongly consistent tone and making it an album that gradually slithers its way under your skin. Mixing gritty story-songs and battle rhymes built on elaborate metaphors (martial arts and chess are two favorites), The Genius brings his lyrical prowess to the forefront of every track, leaving no doubt about how he earned his nickname. Creepily understated tracks like "Liquid Swords," "Cold World," "Investigative Reports," and "I Gotcha Back" are the album's bread and butter, but there's the occasional lighter moment ("Labels" incorporates the names of as many record companies as possible) and spiritual digression ("Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth"). Overall, though, Liquid Swords is possibly the most unsettling album in the Wu canon (even ahead of Ol'Dirty Bastard), and it ranks with Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx as one of the group's undisputed classics.
There were so many Wu-Tang related projects released during 1998 and 1999 that listeners — and even fans — could be forgiven for a bit of apathy regarding the second solo effort by Wu-Tang's Genius/GZA. The collective's trademark detuned strings had gone from de rigueur to downright dated by mid-1999, and except for a well-received RZA solo album earlier in the year, the lead in hip-hop's hype game appeared to have been taken over by Timbaland's brand of future funk. It may not have proved the commercial smash of a proper Wu-Tang LP, but Genius/GZA's Beneath the Surface is a worthy continuation and development of the Wu-Tang Clan conglomeration. The best tracks here, "Amplified Sample" and "Crash Your Crew," are quintessentially Wu-Tang, but with important tweaks to the trademark sound. The crisp, clean production — by Wu associates Inspectah Deck, Mathematics, and Arabian Priest — sounds much better than any project that had been recently issued (even RZA's Bobby Digital), and GZA's raps prove he's the most innovative and talented vocalist Wu-Tang had to offer. The only failure (at least in terms of sound) is "Victim," a cloying track with a bit of scratched acoustic guitar and some X Files-styled strings. Other than a few "skits" that disturb the flow, Beneath the Surface is arguably the best thing to come out of the Wu camp since their second proper album, Forever.
Released at the end of a quiet year for the Wu-Tang family, GZA's Legend of the Liquid Sword proves Gary Grice is easily the most underrated rapper in the fold, and definitely the most consistent as a solo artist. The album gains power as it progresses; after a compelling "Auto Bio" that's chained down by a bland production, and "Did Ya Say That," wherein the Genius sounds downright confused (or worse, resigned) about the game of label politics, Legend of the Liquid Sword locks into a great groove with the single "Knock, Knock" and rarely misses after that. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang features "Fam (Members Only)," featuring RZA and Masta Killa, and "Silent," featuring Ghostface Killah, are big highlights, with a sound similar to 2001's Iron Flag. Surprisingly, though, his track with low-profile Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck bests the other two."Fame" finds the Genius weaving some clever word games around celebrity names, and guest Allen Anthony makes the title track into a grand funk jam akin to OutKast. The productions on Legend of the Liquid Sword are below average for a talent like his, but chances are good that's by design; since GZA is a rapper's rapper, his smooth flow and excellent imagination are all that's necessary to propel any of these tracks.

Considering that Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs and Wu-Tang MC GZA have been collaborating since 1997, when Muggs was releasing his first Soul Assassins record, it makes a lot of sense that the two of them got together to create a full-length record. DJ Muggs gave GZA a copy of 15 of his beats, and two months later they met up in L.A. to record Grandmasters. Of course, the attention of the record is focused on GZA's rhymes, as it should be, but Muggs, the skilled producer that he is, makes his presence felt without being blatant about it, and provides a very good, dramatic backdrop for the rapper. Grandmasters refers both to chess and hip-hop, the two main topics of the record. The song titles allude to situations encountered in a chess game (many of which are briefly described in interludes by Russian-accented speakers), but GZA and the other rappers featured on the record (Wu-Tang associates RZA, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Prodigal Sunn, and Cypress Hill's Sen Dog) use the titles as interpretations of life. As if this weren't obvious enough, GZA himself explains that his love of chess is due to "the great high" he gets from "the movement...war, capturing, thinking, strategy, planning. It's music, it's hip-hop, it's sports, it's life, it's reality." It's a kind of concept album, with the two "grandmasters" of the game explaining the rules to everyone else. Structurally, the record starts out aggressively and strong, with songs like "Exploitation of Mistakes" (with GZA giving an almost news-report delivery) and "General Principles" introducing the ground rules and common errors. As the album moves along, the songs smooth out a little; the initial anxiety has turned into deliberation and strategy. In "Queen's Gambit," GZA, with some ingenuous use of NFL metaphors, seduces — or perhaps is seduced by — the most powerful player on the board. The end becomes apparent in the dramatic, synthesized-string-driven "Unprotected Pieces," about the "very unforgiving environment" of the rap music industry. "Illusory Protection" exposes the lack of talent in many MCs ("most of them be swinging wild and then drop the bat") and the final blow seems inevitable. But GZA is too smart to have things end so easily. Chess, life, and hip-hop are much more complicated than that. The closer, "Smothered Mate," isn't celebrating a win. It's about pain and torture and people who "Draw pistols to resolve issues/It give them a sense of closure to expose the brain tissue." This is no victory song; this is violent reality. Grandmasters is a brilliantly executed and complex record that effectively shows off the skills of the participants, and is definitely not something that should be taken as a game.

Mixtapes:

GZA - D.A.R.T.S. (Bootleg 2006)
GZA - Words From The Genius (Reissue 2006)

Enjoy...As Salaam Aleikum

3 comments:

Antonio said...

I have all these albums, but props.
GZA is one of the best ever.

Eliko B said...

im glad...then check out our next post :) Peace!

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see GZA doing LIQUID SWORDS 9/15 @ McCarren Pool Brooklyn!