It’s impossible to imagine rap without Wu-Tang Clan, the largest and most influential group New York will probably ever know. Studying old styles to fashion innumerable new ones, Wu-Tang reimagined project buildings as pagodas, transposed the violence in their respective neighborhoods (AKA Shaolin) into verbal kung-fu and John Woo flicks. They created a cinematic world, a loose ideology, and a lexicon that fans, critics, and other artists have studied like scripture. Disciples know the core tenets: mental discipline and lyrical mastery, the pursuit of knowledge (of the world and of self) to sharpen your verbal sword. No Wu-Tang member adhered to the code like the eldest, GZA, AKA The Genius.
“Rakim, Kool G Rap, [Big Daddy] Kane – I’ve listened to them since day one. I’ve met them, and they’re exceptional MCs. I mean, exceptional MCs,” RZA wrote in 2004’s The Wu-Tang Manual. “…[N]one of them could touch the GZA. I knew in my heart way back before the Wu-Tang, and I strived to be like him, not like them. GZA’s the only one with a style that actually instilled fear in me… He could make “cat” and “rat” sound threatening.”
A cousin to RZA and ODB, GZA was one-third of Wu-Tang’s foundational trio. His career defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aphorism that American lives have no second acts. GZA was the only member to release an album before Wu-Tang. His inauspicious 1991 debut, Words from the Genius, didn’t chart or produce any successful singles. It could’ve been over for him; no second act. Two years later, after joining Wu-Tang, he emerged as arguably the sharpest among all of the revered swordsmen on the group’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), delivering cutting anchor-leg verses on “Protect Ya Neck” and “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.”
GZA didn’t have the charisma and swing of Method Man, the outlandish and captivating presence of ODB, the slang-laden verses of Raekwon, or the vivid and instantly quotable free-associative bars of Ghostface Killah. Instead, he more closely resembled a ninja, rapping with swiftness and energy but an unshakable calm, the subtext as menacing as explicit threats. Somewhere between crime author and wisened monk, GZA never yelled, almost rapping conversationally while delivering fatal lines to MC’s, shady record labels, and anyone else who elicited his scorn. GZA’s best songs were approachable to the casual rap fan but deep enough for those willing to probe beneath the surface. He wasted few words while laying waste to everything in sight.
Wu scholars will always debate which Clan member had the greatest solo record. Without question, though, GZA has one of the best solo catalogs of the group, one as calculated and economical as his verses. 1995’s Liquid Swords, his sophomore album, is an accepted classic, a dark and damaging treatise on the art of rap and the horrors of Brooklyn and Staten Island. 1999’s Beneath the Surface and 2002’s Legend of the Liquid Sword didn’t measure up to the commercial success of Liquid Swords or the album’s profundity, but they found GZA pushing himself and were critically-lauded. But the tail end of GZA’s career remains a testament to his adherence to the code. On 2005’s Grandmasters and 2008’s Pro Tools he penned some of his most intricate yet deceptively simple verses. There have been no GZA albums since, but he might be waiting until we catch all we missed.
(Liquid Swords; Shadowboxin; 4th Chamber; Duel of the Iron Mic; Labels
Liquid Swords deserved five mics. The Source gave it four and said that GZA may be “the Clan’s most accomplished verbalist.” In retrospect, it feels like a slight. Liquid Swords was a continuation and a perfection of the aesthetic and ethos of Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). With 12 tracks produced by RZA at his peak (4th Disciple produced “B.I.B.L.E.”), the rugged and grim beats sound like they were made in subterranean dojos, smoke-choked, and thundering. The themes were the same but utilized to a greater degree: battle raps (“Duel of the Iron Mic”), kung-fu (“Liquid Swords”), chess (“Gold”), crime narratives (“Cold World,” “Investigative Reports”), Fiver Percenter Islam (“B.I.B.L.E.”).
Opening with a clip from Shogun Assassin, the entire album is framed as a series of lyrical homicides. GZA swing swords and cut clowns, whether those clowns are record labels, other rappers, or even his Wu-Tang peers. In 1995, there was no more devastating takedown of the rap industry than “Labels,” where GZA slashed nearly every imprint you’d care to name. He didn’t care for industry opinions or politics, proclaiming that his style would always be underground: “So duck as I struck with the soul of Motown/My central broadcasting systems is low down.”
But GZA wasn’t content to take down foes outside of the group. He needed a sparring partner within it, someone to sharpen his sword. He found his congenial adversaries on “Duel of the Iron Mic” and “Shadowboxin.” Both are prime examples of GZA’s ability to assert his mic prowess. On the latter, where he matches Method Man bar for bar, he compares his style to a pro wrestler and a sword before scratching the serial number off the mic like it’s a murder weapon. At its core, Liquid Swords is an attempt to find a metaphor that encapsulates GZA’s greatness. He needed every one.
Wu-Tang Is For The Children
(Protect Ya Neck; Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber; Reunited; As High as Wu-Tang Get; Uzi (Pinky Ring))
If you study the batting order of Wu-Tang songs on which GZA appears, you’ll notice he’s almost always last. It’s not a slight but an honor granted to an MC that the group revered. Or, perhaps, no one wanted to rap after him.
You can hear why both theories are probably true on “Protect Ya Neck” from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). He viciously attacks Cold Chillin (here called “Cold Killin”), the record label that released Words from the Genius and failed to promote it: “Should’ve pumped it when I rocked it/N—s so stingy they got short arms and deep pockets.” GZA is cold and calculated, never losing his temper. It’s as if he’d been meditating on this since his debut album proved unsuccessful. His calm is crushing.
The opposite is true on “Reunited,” one of the first songs on 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. Four years after their debut, Wu-Tang clearly wanted GZA at the top of the album to set the tone. Backed by RZA’s cavernous drums and dramatic strings, GZA sounds more amped than anywhere else in his catalog. He clowns rappers “scatting off soft-ass beats” for the duration, reminding them that his verses are more vivid and have greater depth: “I splash the paint on the wall, formed a mural/He took a look, saw the manifestation of it was plural.” Only ODB was crazy enough to follow him.
(Guillotine (Swordz); Third World; Wu Banga 101; Do U; Silverbacks)
Seemingly, GZA never took a job to pay the bills. There are rappers who record more features in a year than he did in decades. Perhaps, the scarcity of guest appearances is a testament to his reverence for the art. If GZA had nothing to contribute, he would remain silent. But when he appeared, he was unforgettable. On “Third World,” he and RZA connected with DJ Muggs, the producer behind Cypress Hill’s funky and banging beats, for 1997’s Muggs Presents… The Soul Assassins Chapter 1 album. Here GZA reminds listeners that he’s a student of rap (“Still branching off the tree that sparked any MC”) and a master practitioner, his sword “so swift [the] naked eye couldn’t record the speed.”
But GZA shines best among his compatriots. For evidence, see his verses on Raekwon’s “Guillotine (Swordz)” in 1995 and Ghostface Killah’s “Wu Banga 101” in 2000. On the former, he’s delivering incredible metaphors, slicing MC’s “where the Mason-Dixon line cross” (also read: cutting them in half). Like the best chess players, GZA needed to compete against multiple rappers to feel challenged, to push himself. On “Wu Banga 101,” where he’s one of the first (and probably the last) rappers to compare his speed and strength to that of ants, he admits as much: “My Clan’ll make me rhyme like D. Banner under pressure.” No one would mistake GZA’s energy for the Hulk, but his lyrics hit like a giant green fist smashing through brick and concrete.
(Those That’s Bout It; Destruction of a Guard; Queen’s Gambit; Pencil; Paper Plate
GZA’s wrote some of his best songs late in his career. By the time GZA released Grandmasters in 2005, he was a decade removed from Liquid Swords and almost 40, often deemed ancient in rap years. With DJ Muggs doing his best RZA interpretation on the beats, GZA pushed himself narratively and lyrically, finding new ways to tell stories and batter the opposition. He left the competition in “intensive care” on “Those That’s Bout It” and “Destruction of a Guard,” but “Queen’s Gambit” is one of the crowning achievements of his career. An extended double entendre, GZA subtly name drops every NFL team as he narrates a tryst using football analogies: “She dated jolly green Giants that flew on Jets/An A-list actress, who was never walked off sets/She loved stuffed animals, especially Bears.” This a feat that seems effortless, but a less seasoned rapper would’ve fumbled.
Then there’s 2008’s Pro Tools, which bests every late-period Wu-affiliate album that wasn’t made by Ghostface. Working with producers like Dreddy Kruger to RZA, GZA once again seemed reinvigorated. He also proved a better A&R than those he dissed decades ago on “Protect Ya Neck,” selecting both KA and Roc Marciano years before they would become critically-acclaimed for reviving New York street rap.
The best song from GZA on the album, though, is “Paper Plate.” A 50 Cent diss, the song finds GZA at his most merciless. After years of attacking MC’s in the abstract, it was as if he’d been waiting for a target. He critiques 50’s thirst for the spotlight and questions the legitimacy of his back story, throwing his lyrics back at him: “If you was a pimp, put tricks on the stroll/And if those were soldiers, give ’em bigger guns to hold/Who shot ya? You don’t have enough on your roster/You move like a fed, but you talk like a mobster.” 50, never one to shy away from a challenge, did not respond. GZA may have been the one rapper he wasn’t willing to test.
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