Rewind to 1995, just before the shiny-suits ushered in by Puffy, and the hip-hop landscape was a very different place to that which exists today. It was a time when the dominance of Dr Dre’s Death Row G-Funk was being challenged by a darker sound from the other side of the country. New York was once-again making its presence felt, through releases from names like Nas, Mobb Deep, and a ‘Ready To Die’ era, Notorious B.I.G. Thrown into this mix were Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan, who were making record industry history as they took solo deals at a number of different record labels based on the impact of their debut album, ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).’ This album had introduced the world to the unique, chopped-up, kung-fu-movie-sampling production of the Rza, who remained at his artistic best for the creation of his cousins ‘Liquid Swords.’
‘Liquid Swords’ was actually the sophomore album for the Genius (Gza), who had previously had an album out on Cold Chillin Records. However, unsatisfied with how the label had treated him; the Genius had retreated back to his Wu brethren. It was therefore of no surprise to find that his new album owed much more to 1993s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’ than it did his debut, ‘Words From The Genius.’
Fast-forward once again to 2012, and we have a special-edition reissue of Gza’s highly acclaimed album. Beautifully packaged, the box-set includes the original album (digitally restored and remastered from original reels) and a second disc of album instrumentals, which have never been officially released before. Fans also get extended full-color liner-notes, including brand-new input from the Gza himself, inner jackets and finely produced dust sleeves for the discs, and even a full miniature wooden chess set, which can be used on the board inside the box. Beautifully-packaged, this collection is certainly going to appeal to fans of the Gza’s influential album. But, how does the music itself stand up in 2012?
The cinematic feel of the album is perfectly introduced with the extended sample used on the opening title track. Indeed, the frequent samples from samurai movie, ‘Shogun Assassin’ add further depth to Rza’s, at times, melancholy and austere production. Meanwhile, the Gza’s deep wordplay weaves imagery from the streets, eastern-mysticism, and gangster-movies with chess references, and straight hip-hop with strong metaphors flowing freely. However, it is not just Gza who comes through on the mic, as every member of the Wu-Tang Clan shows support with a guest appearance. While the input from the fellow Wu-Tang MCs, plus affiliates like Killah Priest, Life, and Dreddy Kruger, is quality, the Gza consistently shows why his group-mates didn’t want to follow him on the mic. Whether spitting straight-up battle-styles, dropping knowledge, or criticizing music industry poli-tricks (‘Labels), the Gza’s rhymes stay top-notch throughout. With more than enough highlights to go around, ‘Liquid Swords’ is actually more than the sum of its parts. Rather than a collection of disparate tracks, this album feels coherent as the tracks compliment one-another to offer a musical journey for the listener.
While commercial-edged hip-hop in 2012 steadily flaunts pop-tints, ‘Liquid Swords’ shuns such attempts in favor of a uniquely Wu-Tang feel. While tougher to penetrate than the more immediate pop-hip-hop of some of today’s artists, the Gza’s sophomore album still holds its own. Just as not every album is made by Disney, so ‘Liquid Swords’ offers a deeper, darker edge to contrast with today’s bright, pop-lite, club and radio focused output.
The ‘Liquid Swords – Chess Box’ is a fine way to discover, or rediscover, a genuine 90s hip-hop classic. As the back of the album reads, “kill the fraudulent and honor the code of the lyrical swordsman.”