Every few Thursdays, (DJ Kno Kname posts) a throwback review of a classic hip hop album or an album by a classic hip hop artist released on that particular date. The review is divided into four parts, each analyzed under the lens of the four pillars of hip hop: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti-ing. The MCs section analyzes the lyrical content of the album and suggests songs which up-and-coming rappers might want to listen carefully to. The DJs section is further divided into two parts: an analysis for DJs like DJ Premier, who produce songs, and an analysis for DJs like Rob Swift, turntablists who mix, beat match, and beat juggle. For the DJ Quiks out there, that’s what the MC section is for. The b-boys section suggests song which could be good for breaking/battling to, and the graf artists section analyzes the album artwork – is there anything worth integrating into pieces?
Liquid Swords – Genius/GZA
Released on this date in: 1995
Context: Technically the fourth Wu Tang solo album (after Method Man’s Tical, ODB’s Return to the 36 Chambers, and Raekwon’s Only Built…), this was actually GZA’s second solo album, his first being Words from the Genius released under the Genius moniker. This album and the other non-Wu-Tang solo album by the RZA, the Ooh I Love You Rakeem EP released under the Prince Rakeem moniker, were both released prior to 36 Chambers, are pretty un-Wu Tang (ex: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDT8OOkS_dc), and probably should be forgotten by those who have an idealized view of the Wu Tang Clan; Words from the Genius was produced heavily by Easy Moe Bee, for cryin’ out loud (no disrespect to Easy Moe Bee, who produced most of Biggie’s Ready to Die). Even though this album was the fourth of the Wu-Tang solo albums, this was arguably the most Wu Tang-like and one of the better received of the solo albums.
MCs: GZA is a storyteller who flows smooth, instead of the aggressive, haymaker lyricism of a battle MC. Thus, throughout the album, the rhyming is laid-back storytelling and philosophizing. The flow is so smooth that very few lyrics hit you in your face, which is good if we’re talking about telling a story or contemplating the meaning of life. That isn’t to say that the lyrics are garbage; rather, listeners can just sit back and soak in the lyricism without being distracted by in-your-face swears or insults. Sometimes, you just want to watch a calm, well put-together movie instead of Michael Bay explosions. GZA can hit hard with lyrics, he just realizes that keeping the focus on the song as a whole is important, so he keeps the beauty of the rhymes subtle. You can’t truly tell a good story if you insert a line which makes people ignore the line you say right after that. Lines like “Because they lifestyle is hectic, so f***in’ hectic, Blaow! Bloaw! Blaow! Bullets are ejected” and “It’s so hard to escape the gunfire, I wish I could rule it out like an umpire” in “I Gotcha Back” make you say “Wow” very quietly without interrupting the plot. If you want more battle-like inflections and wordplay, try “Duel on the Iron Mic” (with Inspectah Deck), “4th Chamber” (with Ghostface), and “Investigative Reports” (with Raekwon the Chef).
DJs: RZA is a pretty beastly producer, and it definitely shows up on this album. The sampling from the movie, Shogun Assassin (ex: “Don’t worry, it’s only a dream”), is integrated so well, the lines feel like skits that paint a story between the songs, almost like a concept album. In “Swordsmen”, RZA demonstrates how to layer together different tracks seamlessly to make instruments and tempos which shouldn’t work together actually, well, work together.
Wu Tang songs are typically harder to mix, but the samples from Shogun Assassin definitely provide opportunity for clever beat juggling. Easier songs to mix from the album include “Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hills 10304” (once you get past the skit at the beginning) and “I Gotcha Back”; both have solid donuts of instrumentals before and after the rapping.
B-boys: Just as Wu Tang songs are typically harder to mix, Wu Tang songs are generally tougher to break to. The songs are usually slower, with gritty and eerie piano and string stabs, as opposed to up tempo, upbeat horns and drum breaks. “Investigative Reports” is probably the most driving song, with a good drum break throughout most of the song. “Gold” also has a very solid drum break throughout, but has a disjointedness that might make breaking a little more fitful.
Graf artists: The album artwork on Liquid Swords is right in that juicy transition period between the really basic, no-nonsense artwork of the 80’s and early 90’s, and the denser, commercialized feel of the late 90’s and 00’s. There’s some juicy imagery in the concise booklet. Wu Tang doesn’t play dominoes or throw dice; Wu Tang is too intelligent for that. Wu Tang chessboxes, and the chess motif is throughout the album artwork. On the CD, the back album cover is clever; it integrates the album songs into a story, almost like how the lines from Shogun Assassin tie the songs together into a story. Unfortunately, the songs aren’t in the correct order, which could lead to some serious confusion.
Singles: “I Gotcha Back”, “Cold World”, “Liquid Swords”, “Shadowboxin’”
Shoulda been singles: “Duel on the Iron Mic”, “Gold”, “BIBLE”