A wise man once said that those who “really, really like Wu-Tang think Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the greatest solo album the Clan ever released; those who understand Wu-Tang prefer Liquid Swords.” Naturally, this is highly subjective. Under any rubric, Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx are pretty much perfect records. Finding flaws in the Wu-Tang Clan’s run from ’93 to ’96 is generally impossible. What kinds of gripes can you really have? Not enough club bangers? They don’t come equipped with their own novelty dance steps? Nary a single mention of apple-bottom jeans or boots with “the fur”?
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The rapper, photographed at the time of Liquid Swords' release
Of course, you can disagree, but I’d advise otherwise. Really. It’s tantamount to openly confessing that you’re completely wrong at life. The thing is, Wu-Tang is the closest thing that rap has ever had to the Beatles. As Please Please Me kick-started the British Invasion and flipped the meaning of rock & roll on its axis, the Wu did the same for ’90s New York City rap. Featuring nine rappers gunning against the world, decapitating a soundtrack of creaky soul songs sinisterly repurposed by the RZA, Enter the Wu-Tang and the first five solo records were a New Testament of sorts, albeit one that featured a lot more blunt smoking and sounded awesome when blasted in a Jeep. Yet if these albums are to be accepted as the Gospels, GZA’s Liquid Swords stands apart as a document from the Old Testament.
The purest distillation of Wu mythology, Liquid Swords is a prequel to Enter the Wu-Tang — the story of the Clan’s Exodus-like wanderings through the burnt-out patches of all five boroughs during the crack-ravaged Reagan years, each verse sketching a whirling world of internecine warfare and decaying, poverty-infested projects. Releasing it in the winter of 1995, the RZA declared that his intent was to make people shiver in their cars, and when you listen to Liquid Swords over a dozen years later, its permafrost production batters like gusts of spine-stiffening wind crashing into sheets of freezing rain.
From the first lisped clips of dialogue lifted from the Japanese samurai flick The Shogun Assassin, the record shuttles back and forth between parallel universes, with the GZA’s vivid sketches of hell alternating with cinematic tales of empires run by paranoid, shuttered-in shoguns with brains infected by devils and a blood lust for decapitation. However, the tone is seamless: all horror, a living, breathing nightmare animated in murky newspaper grays with a blood-red tint. Whereas Enter the Wu-Tang had its inherent limitations in that RZA was forced to split the playing time among all nine Clansmen, Liquid Swords stands as a perfect crystallization of the Clan’s weird, wise alchemy of kung fu, Five Percenter slang, comics, chess and criminology raps. Obsessive in the execution of his vision, the GZA tapped famed DC Comics artist Denys Cowan to hand-draw the album cover — cloaked ninjas in Wu insignias slaughtering people across a chessboard — and Cowan directed and co-wrote each of the album’s four indelible videos.
Like all early Wu solo records, Liquid Swords features numerous and notable Clan guest appearances, but only on the Genius’ do they contort themselves to fit one singular cosmology. Ghostface Killah’s and RZA’s appearances on “4th Chamber” rank among their finest ever, with Ghost’s alter ego Starks in poison-tongued, corner-existentialist mode, mocking his competition for drinking apple Boone’s, dealing “white shit like blacks rock ashy legs,” before tilting his head to the heavens and posing atavistic, poignant questions. Meanwhile, the RZA gives birth to his Bobby Digital alter ego, spending 16 bars describing the most gnarled dystopia he can imagine: traitors to the cause getting tossed into scalding lakes; government-ordered ninjas kidnapping your wife and children; and the state of humanity boiled down to its most basic. Method Man never sounded smoother or meaner than on “Shadowboxin’,” boasting about crunching “niggaz like a Nestlé” while floating ethereally above the fray, like the song’s title, a commotion of shadow and light.
But the star of the show was the Genius himself. Gone was the Afrocentric-minded rapper enthralled with Big Daddy Kane who had made 1991’s Words From the Genius. In his stead was a darker, more complex artist, one channeling his fury at getting dropped by the Cold Chillin’ label into the vicious anti-industry screed, “Labels.” On “I Gotcha Back,” he flashes back to his childhood and how he could’ve written a book with the title Age 12 and Going to Hell. On “Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hills 10304,” the GZA envisions himself as the notorious mob figure Grey Ghost, complete with intricate drug and jewel deals and Afghan henchmen putting bombs in bottles of champagne. Few rappers have ever delivered a more complete performance, with the GZA’s authoritative baritone and masterful economy of words lending themselves ideally to his role as omniscient narrator. His stories are compact and filled with crisp, complex rhymes that move with the steady, deliberate nature of the veteran chess player that he was.
Over a dozen years later, GZA can still pack shows across the globe merely by tossing “Presents Liquid Swords” in front of his name on the bill. Indeed, few albums have aged better than this masterpiece, a record that sounds as simultaneously ancient and modern as it was when it was first released. Ultimately, whether you prefer Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or any of the other great Wu records doesn’t matter much; what does is the fact that they’ve left — and are still leaving — a body of work imbued with a timelessness rarely found in contemporary hip-hop. Even if they still haven’t invented a catchy dance step.
GZA performs Liquid Swords in its entirety on Sat., March 29, at the El Rey Theatre.