Twenty years after its release, Gza’s Liquid Swords remains a high-water mark in lyrical dexterity…
by: Michael Shields
Gza, born Gary Grice, is a wordsmith1. He is one of the most gifted and cerebral MCs to ever walk the face of the planet. Gza, one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang clan, is known throughout the hip-hop stratosphere as The Genius, and with good reason. An analysis of GZA’s lyrics revealed that he has the second largest vocabulary in hip-hop, behind only Aesop Rock in a sample of 75 rappers2. Gza rhymes in the manner of a surgeon, his words acting as a scalpel that cut with precision and veracity. His rhymes are meticulously-vetted, densely packed, and spit with clarity and purpose. He bounces with ease between similes and metaphors, all the while maintaining a coherent and precise flow that exhibits consummate comprehension of his craft. And Liquid Swords, released on November 7, 1995, is Gza’s magnum opus, his chef d’oeuvre, his masterstroke that displayed to the world the uncompromising extent of his magnanimous talent.
In 1995, the Wu-Tang Clan had, for all intents and purposes, taken hold of the East Coast, and Liquid Swords was the opportunity for the group’s spiritual leader to step into the spotlight. Liquid Swords is GZA’s sophomore album, the follow up to 1991’s Words from the Genius, but whilst only his second album, it emerged mature. It was raw, unchecked lyricism at its finest, and with the entire album produced by Rza at arguably the height of his creative invincibility, Liquid Swords is a remarkable piece of art. The album is stitched together with soundbites from the 1980 sword-wielding samurai classic, Shogun Assassin3. In the film, a samurai warrior lays defeated on the floor of his home having been attacked by relentless shogun ninjas. The ninjas slay the samurai’s wife, leaving him and his child to face the world alone. The samurai, foreseeing a future rife with death and retribution, attempts to give his child a choice. He takes his sword and places it on one side of the infant, and on the other side he sets a ball. He perilously advises his child to pick one. If he were to choose the ball, the samurai was set to arrange his son a meeting with his mother in the afterlife. If he were to choose the sword, the samurai would train his son, readying him for a life awash with bloodshed and malaise. To the father’s dismay, the child crawls towards the sword, and this is where Liquid Swords commences, a remembrance of a point when nothing afterwards would ever be the same….
“When I was little, my father was famous, He was the greatest samurai in the empire. And he was the Shogun’s decapitator. He cut off the heads of a hundred and thirty-one lords. It was a bad time for the empire. The Shogun just stayed inside his castle and he never came out. People said his brain was infected by devils. My father would come home, he would forget about the killings. He wasn’t scared of the Shogun, but the Shogun was scared of him. Maybe that was the problem. Then, one night, the Shogun sent his ninja spies to our house. They were supposed to kill my father but they didn’t. That was the night everything changed….”
Gza described Liquid Swords’ purpose as simply “being lyrically sharp with the tongue,” and no song exhibits this idea more than the title track which births the album. As the staccato keyboard and straight-forward yet dense beat that comprises “Liquid Swords” emerges4, it’s clear that Gza is out to prove something. He has described this jaw-dropping opening track as “just braggadocios.” He states: “It isn’t meant to stand for anything. I’m talking about my skills and how I’m better than the rest. The hook was actually a routine from around ‘84 that me, RZA, and Ol’ Dirty would do.” “Liquid Swords” serves as a resume of sorts, outlining Gza’s many years in training as a lyricist that were essential for him to arrive fully groomed for this triumphant moment. “Liquid Swords,” it must be noted, marks the first time we hear GZA’s unique and patented pronunciation of microphone (mic-phone), and, true to form, he drops eleven similes and thirteen metaphors in just two verses.
“Duel of the Iron Mic”, built upon a sample of David Porter’s “I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” (also the basis for Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?”), finds Ol’ Dirty Bastard refereeing an extraordinary rap battle, one where the players are Wu-faithfuls such as Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, and of course, Gza. This head-banger is an ideal set-up for the more poignant, “Living in the World Today,” a track thick with social commentary that still resonates today which concludes with an unforgettable quartet of lines, “Rings like shots from glocks that attract cops / Around the clubs and try to shut down the hip-hop / But we only increase if everything is peace / Father you see King the police.”
The chilling and graphic street narratives of “Gold” revolves around a heavy rock-centric beat that’s all-consuming. The hook, “Yo, the fiends ain’t coming fast enough / There is no cut that’s pure enough / I can’t fold, I need gold, I re-up and reload / Product must be sold to you” is a densely-veiled play on Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Gold” establishes itself as a pivot point for the album, where what was light and amusing becomes moody and all too real. “Cold World” featuring Inspectah Deck continues the stirring depth and the street narrative of “Gold,” where it isn’t the Night Before Christmas, but rather the “Night before New Year’s and all through the fucking projects / Not a handgun was silent, not even a Tec / Outsider’s were stuck, but enemies who put fear / And blasted on the spot before the pigs were there.” “Cold War” is that glaring reminder that for far too many people life isn’t a blithe journey, but an obstacle course flush with menace.
“Labels” also warns of hazards abounding, but this time Gza is speaking of the perils of the recording industry. Gza conceded that writing “Labels” was a painstaking process that took over a year, and when complete he had incorporated the names of as many record companies into the track as he was able to. This dazzling display of wordplay brings us to the mid-way point of the album, and what is awaiting to open the second half of Liquid Swords is “4th Chamber,” as much of a Wu-Tang track as anything you will find on the album. “4th Chamber” features Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest, and RZA in an astonishing cipher. While Ghostface’s thought-provoking lead off verse demands attention (“Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? / Why did Judas rat to Romans while Jesus slept?”), Rza’s verse may just hit the hardest, concocting rhymes that are both foreboding and sagacious, rhyming “Six million devils just died from the Bubonic Flu / or the Ebola Virus / under the reign of King Cyrus / you can see the weakness of a man right through his iris.”
“Shadowboxing” featuring Method Man, displays the almighty power of Meth. Gza and Method Man both deliver superb, crisp verses, two gifted lyricists at the height of their power feeding off each other and forcing one another to raise the bar. And within the track Gza makes it clear just how far ahead of the game they were at the time, “Check these non-visual niggas, with tapes and a portrait / Flood the seminar trying to orbit this corporate / Industry, but what them niggas can’t see / Must break through like the Wu, unexpectedly.”
“Hell’s Wind Staff / Killah Hills 10304″ is, as Gza puts it, “long as hell and has no hook.” It’s a Pablo-Escobar inspired thriller that Gza equates to a “short, dense film.” “Investigative Reports” is another posse cut. In it, U-God, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah go to work, flexing their lyrical muscles and shouting out their homeland, Staten Island, all the while. “Swordsman” is raw. It’s in-your-face, and it is the only track where Gza chooses not to share any of the spotlight. Within its brainy verses, Gza speaks about knowledge of self, and of finding empowerment through education (“But with knowledge of self from off the shelf / Made things seemed complicated now small like elves”). It’s a powerful message, and a defining facet of who Gza was, a soul-searcher driven towards science and enlightenment.
“I Gotcha Back” comes packed with witty punchlines, highlighted by the acronym of C.R.I.M.E. as “Criminals Robbing Innocent Muthafuckas Everytime,” but has a touching current running through it as well. Gza describes “I Gotcha Back” as “a short rhyme [he] wrote for one of [his] nephews, stating, “When I said, ‘My lifestyle so far from well, could’ve wrote a book called Age Twelve and Going Through Hell,’ it’s for my nephew who was twelve at the time, and whose father, my brother, had been locked up since ’88. So he wasn’t around for my nephew when times were rough, so I wanted to up my nephew a bit with this track.”
“B.I.B.L.E,” which closes the album, is an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”5 This is the only track on the album that doesn’t feature a verse from Gza, and in his place Killah Priest laments on his difficult childhood. Killah takes aim at churches and preachers who wasted his time, rhyming “Searched for the truth since my youth / And went to church since birth / But it wasn’t worth the loot.” B.I.B.L.E is nostalgic and sentimental, and in this way it is an ideal closer for the album, an introspective cherry on top of an utter classic.
Liquid Swords features what is arguably Rza’s greatest production on any of the Wu-Tang’s solo records. The album was meticulously constructed, and the dark cinematic themes that hold the album together are a perfect match for Gza’s calculated rhymes. Many of the beats have a grimy, hard rock feel to them, and others feature samples from soul legends such as Stevie Wonder and Al Green, and even bands such as Three Dog Night. Rza’s stature as one of the best producers in all of hip-hop was sound before Liquid Swords, but following its release his capabilities seemed limitless, and his talents unmatched.
Gza was a bit of an anomaly in terms of his place within the Wu-Tang Clan. Oftentimes he lurked in the shadows, more measured and thoughtful than his associates, and much of this had to do with the fact that Gza was the oldest member of the Clan (29 years old when Liquid Swords was released), and also the most experienced. In this way, Gza was the elder statesman, the one the others looked up to, the sagacious wizard of words with a seamless, pointed flow. While verbose and with the vocabulary of a dictionary, GZA is one of the most efficient and economic MCs in the game, using minimal words to make maximum statements. His rhymes are rich in allusions, brimming with compact eruptions of imagery, and his cerebral easy-going flow remains unique to this day. His style is fascinating, as it balances between slow and rhythmic to exaggerated and stark. Flush with analogies and images, his heady rhymes are nuanced and refined, displaying a craftsman completely in tune with his abilities.
Liquid Swords is dark, intoxicating, and all the while intellectual. It is loaded with allusions to chess, societal injustices, Japanese Cinema, and philosophy. Gza has the reputation as the best lyricist in the Wu-Tang Clan, but hip-hop aficionados are not afraid to take it further than that, appropriately praising Gza as one of the best lyricists of all time – and Liquid Swords is proof positive of this. It is an album lacking even a mediocre line, and the combination of Gza and Rza at arguably their creative heights resulted in the creation of a masterpiece. Much like the Samurai child from Shogun Assassin who crawled unassumingly towards his father’s sword, forging his destiny down a reconditioned path, the release of Liquid Swords was a moment in time that changed hip-hop forevermore, and fashioned Gza a legend in his own time.
- The second time this week I referred to a musician as a wordsmith. The first was in reference to Iron Solomon, the most recent guest on Across the Margin’s podcast. [↩]
- 6,426 unique words used, according to Polygraph. [↩]
- Shogun Assassin is a film made for the British and American markets that was stitched together with an English-translation dub from the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a collection of bloody, dark Japanese films from the ‘70s. [↩]
- An all-time favorite beat of mine, notably utilized by Mos Def in “Crimes and Medicine.” [↩]
- “I Gotcha Back is the authentic close to the album as B.I.B.L.E. is a Bonus Track – but still a critical piece of the puzzle. [↩]