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Holy Hell! Liquid Swords Turns 20

Holy Hell! Liquid Swords Turns 20

Liquid Swords is not only as one of the finest showcases of pure talent in ‘90s hip-hop but also a celebration of the Wu’s group dynamic.

Picking out the best Wu-Tang album is a near-impossibility; from the release of the collective’s 1993 debut through their reunion four years later for Wu-Tang Forever, they released, together and separately, enough classics to have single-handedly propped up the ‘90s as rap’s silver age. Not only were these records great works of imaginative, hyper-verbose hip-hop, they each had a special angle that made a case for favoring it over its brethren. 36 Chambers has a murky edge that casts its performers as the living embodiment of the underground; Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was triumphant coke braggadocio, leapfrogging from Tony Montana washing onto a grimy shore to his kingpin days; and Return to the 36 Chambers was merrily unhinged rap-song that fearlessly ignored everything from simple genre classification to logical meter. And that’s not even mentioning the simple gamesmanship of Method Man’s and Ghostface’s solo debuts, which etched out personae but, more importantly, proved how well its MCs could shine when not forced to share the spotlight with a half-dozen other rhymers.

In terms of pure craft, however, it’s hard not to keep returning to Liquid Swords. GZA may not adopt a defining character the way Rae or Ghost or ODB did, but his laser-focused bars are so precisely ordered that his straightforward role as an observer attains a kind of Zen master vibe. As he did for most of the early Wu records, RZA supplies the production, and his heavy sampling of Shogun Assassin out of the gate casts his cousin as a font of ancient wisdom, a storyteller of mythic knowledge and unbeatable intelligence. GZA, for his part, does his best to live up to this hype, and he uses the opening track to give a brief summary of his own history while using every available moment to flex his muscles. “I flow like the blood on a murder scene, like a syringe/On some wild out shit, to insert a fiend,” he raps, voice so calm and collected that his boasts sound more like statements of simple, undeniable fact. Elsewhere, he claims his opponents’ rhymes “are weak like clock radio speakers,” defusing any comers as deftly as his more overt references to lyrical decapitations and nuclear annihilations.

It’s a cliché to attribute the role of documentarian to rappers who perform in the detached, observational style that GZA adopts here, and in truth much of the album follows in the path set down by the opener, a series of boasts backed up by the rapper’s flow and knotty allusions and rhymes. On “Living in the World Today,” he compares other MCs to robbers but strips the metaphor of its criminal allure, instead suggesting that they’re always fleeing from sloppy jobs and relying on their DJ as “the getaway driver” to bail them out. “I socialize on vocal vibes/On tracks stabbed up with razor-sharp knives,” GZA raps by way of distinguishing himself from these poseurs. On “Labels,” he incorporates references to dozens of major labels, their subsidiaries and independent houses in a twisting piece of wordplay that mocks the way that each fails the artists it signs. It’s a devastating piece of work, all the more so for the lack of malice in the man’s voice; his calm speaks the truth of his attacks.

So confident is GZA that he turns over much of the album to his Wu compatriots in a series of collaborators in which they sometimes deserve equal billing with the artist on the cover. Initially, the guest verses only reinforce the higher level upon which he sits: on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” Inspectah Deck hits with a furiously verse that he spits out at double-time, the pace of his rapping communicating his rage and despair at what he sees on the streets. GZA’s first vere, meanwhile, steps one level outside this observation to report on his surroundings while also taking swipes at weak MCs who fail to say anything with meaning or style. By placing his own verse first, GZA loosely legitimizes Deck’s, as well as Masta Killa’s laid-back cataloging of the Wu’s innovations, suggesting that his crew exists outside the narrow boundaries of their nominal peers.

“4th Chamber” is an outright posse cut, launched into motion by one of Ghostface Killah’s strongest early verses and arguably peaks with Killah Priest’s religiously minded verse. Priest even gets to close out the album with an outright solo number that expands the spirituality of his “4th Chamber” verse into “Brief Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” There are many moments of great beauty on the album—GZA’s cousin’s soulful hook on “Cold World,” the Ann Peebles sample on “Shadowboxin’”—but Priest nearly steals the album as he closes it, criticizing the limitations and corruptions of religion while still believing fervently in the spirit. RZA’s production is never lovelier than it is backing this inner odyssey, putting the “beat” into beatific with sunny drums and equally warm synth tones.

“B.I.B.L.E.” is the fullest testament to GZA’s generosity, and it cements Liquid Swords not only as one of the finest showcases of pure talent in ‘90s hip-hop but also a celebration of the Wu’s group dynamic. A Shogun Assassin quote at the end of “Duel of the Iron Mic” ominously describes a misapplication of technique, relating, “At the height of their fame and glory, they turned on one another…The very art that had raised them to such Olympian heights was lost, their techniques vanished.” The Wu-Tang Clan would suffer its own divisions and internal squabbles, and the group as it exists today is largely a pale shadow of its individual and collective highs. But there will always be this album, as essential as 36 Chambers in laying down the essence of the Wu: there are more influential Wu albums, maybe even better ones, but none so celebratory of the mere act of creating great rap, more uncompromising in its dedication to great sounds and great lyrics, than this.

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