I trust I am not surprising anybody when I say that most hip-hop artists, with the notable exception of Kanye West, have an especially pronounced issue with sustaining the creative spark of their early careers. After all, hip-hop is often a way to escape the horrors of the inner cities, and once that horror has been escaped, how do you possibly recover the hunger that pulled you out in the first place? Take, for example, legendary outfit the Wu-Tang Clan – on their first album, you could practically feel the desire through your speakers, and each progressive album saw that desire slowly recede, leaving efforts that paled in comparison to that incredible debut. This wasn’t contained to Wu-Tang group efforts, either; with precious few exceptions, the group’s solo efforts have lacked any real spark, drive, or energy, to the dismay of their still-substantial fanbase.
The GZA, a.k.a. Genius, has one of those precious few exceptions; I have made no secret about my respect, admiration, and love for Liquid Swords, his 1995 masterpiece. A raw, almost DIY combination of gritty beats and razor-sharp lyricism, Liquid Swords hasn’t aged a day since its release, and stands proudly as one of the Clan’s greatest albums. His career since has been disappointing, featuring two albums that occasionally hint at the heights of Liquid Swords without actually reaching them. Now, six whole years since his last release, we get Pro Tools, the potentially long-awaited new release from the GZA. And, unfortunately, the album proves the point I outline above – Pro Tools is a bland effort, and another massive disappointment for Wu-Tang fans.
What disappoints me the most about Pro Tools, an album for which I had only the faintest ghost of expectations for prior to its release, is the fact that an album of legitimately strong production has been wasted here. One of modern hip-hop’s major problems is that the production is often brutally weak and similar-sounding; here, some of the beats rival the RZA at his best. Songs like “Firehouse,” with a string section reminiscent of Wu-Tang highlight “Triumph,” and the funky guitars and R&B moans of “Alphabets” contribute to a unity that belies the 10 producers on the album (including RZA on 2 tracks). Pro Tools sounds, in many ways, like a Wu-Tang album from the group’s mid-90s creative peak, and that only leads to raising expectations with memories of Only Built For Cuban Linx…dancing in my head.
Then you get to GZA’s flow, and everything falls apart. For an album more than half a year in the making, you might expect GZA to get himself amped up to prove himself still at the top of his game and a viable creative artist. Instead, you get rhymes delivered in a tone that varies from bored to half-interested, which serves to kill the album’s momentum and make the listener wonder “this was the guy that recorded `Cold World’ a decade ago?” GZA always did have a lazy flow, make no mistake, but here it’s hard to tell if he wasn’t roused out of a deep sleep right before heading to the studio. A song with a strong lyrical conceit like “0% Finance” (which does for car metaphors what “Labels” did for, uh, labels) loses its impact when the lyrics are delivered as lazily as they are here. Songs like “Cinema” and “Short Race” see inferior MCs constantly showing up the man with his name on the cover, simply by virtue of infusing some passion into the proceedings. By the end of the album, it’s hard not to think that GZA needed some more scratch for a new chess set or something; the album might as well come with a book of $.49 stamps.
My expectations for Wu-Tang albums, both group and solo, have diminished with each year and each mediocre release; honestly, only Ghostface’s albums fill me with any excitement anymore. Still, there’s always the hope that one of them will deliver another masterpiece, another strong album that takes me back to my teenage years, when the Clan could do no wrong. Pro Tools, an album of great beats that would’ve been best served by hungrier rappers, does nothing to stoke that hope once again.
Wu-Tang Clan – 8 Diagrams
Ghostface Killah – The Big Doe Rehab
Raekwon – The Lex Diamond Story