I came in late on the Liquid Swords bandwagon. I mean, I’m as much a fan of Wu-Tang as anybody of my generation, and I’ve heard most of the solo albums (sorry, U-God), but I remember hearing Liquid Swords as a teenager and being underwhelmed. I’ve always been more of a Ghostface fan, anyway, and Supreme Clientele runs more along my tastes. Then, one day, I gave Liquid Swords a proper listen – and I completely, utterly got it. Few experiences in music fandom equal giving a great album a second chance and realizing its greatness, and I consider myself quite lucky to have had it with GZA’s debut solo album, one of the 3 or 4 best Wu solo albums and one of the best albums of 1995.
Every Wu solo album, in one way or another, feels more like a Wu-Tang Clan album with one guy getting more verses than everybody else. It’s the really great ones (Supreme Clientele, Only Built For Cuban Linx…, Return To the 36 Chambers) that overcome this and give the emcee on the cover all the attention he deserves. Liquid Swords, although it has its share of guest rappers, is the GZA’s show through and through. His gravelly, unimposing voice gives his words added heft, and his penchant for similes adds a touch of humor to the generally grim surroundings. Liquid Swords is as downbeat as hip-hop gets, stuffed full of tales of crime and references to martial arts. A line from standout “I Gotcha Back” shows the typical mindset: “Then I realized the plan/ I’m trapped in a deadly video game, with just one man/ So I don’t only watch my back, I watch my front.” There are a few digressions — the novelty of major label name-dropper “Labels,” the philosophical musings of “B.I.B.L.E.” (Killah Priest taking a turn on the mic); but for the most part, every song paints a dark picture.
To match the gritty lyrics, RZA submitted one of his best production jobs ever (with 4th Disciple producing final track “B.I.B.L.E.”, the most upbeat track on here); this is as close to the Wu-Tang’s debut as he’d ever get. With quotes from cult movie Shogun Assassin lending a creepy touch to the surroundings, every RZA trademark is here: eerie strings, chopped up ’70s R&B samples, horror-movie piano, and an airtight minimalism that makes every element that much more foreboding. Not surprisingly, the beats work well to bring out the GZA’s equally dark lyrics.
Practically every track on here is a highlight. Opener “Liquid Swords” starts with a frightening child-delivered monologue before choppy guitars back up GZA’s kung-fu inflected boasts of his lyrical prowess. “Shadowboxin’” features an unsettling vocal sample, an organ drone intertwining with a fluid bass line, and one of Method Man’s best verses on record. And the aforementioned “I Gotcha Back” is marvelously stark, blaxploitation horns blaring over unsettling piano and moans, GZA unwinding a gut-wrenching tale of his life in a dingy and gritty city landscape. It’s a truly incredible experience, the kind of hip-hop only the Wu at their peak could deliver.
In writing this review, I was struck by the odd similarity Liquid Swords shares with another album I reviewed (that did make the list), Slint’s Spiderland. Both of them live up to the reviewer’s favorite adjective, “atmospheric” – Spiderland in its alien soundscapes and its overwhelming emotional desolation, Liquid Swords in its uniformly dark beats and painfully on-point lyricism. Both of them, of course, are also masterpieces. If I truly am a lucky man, I’ll have the same second-chance awakening to another great album as I did with Liquid Swords. Somehow, I don’t see that happening.
Wu Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep
Ghostface Killah – Fishscale