There are a number of albums that need to be revisited to appreciate their historical context and consequent impact on the culture (accusations of of Golden Age Boom Bap fetishism be damned). The GZA’s Liquid Swords was not only a watermark for the Wu at their arguable peak but for hip-hop in general. Seventeen years after its intial release, record label Get On Down pays only-appropriate homage to the Genius and RZA’s seminal masterpiece with a deluxe edition reissue. This collectors item includes not only the classic LP, but a separate physical copy of RZA’s instrumentals, artwork from the orginal LP, a 20-page interview with GZA in the liner notes–and most importantly, a mini-chess set that can be played on a board printed on the inner cover of the box housing all these goodies as part of the overall experience.
In an era where paying dues consists of amassing youtube views and struggle bars are overlooked if the artist in question has enough cache and swag in the eye of the public, Liquid Swords is a nostalgic walk down memory lane to a time when being a respected emcee actually required being able to rap well. The production on Liquid Swords exhibits RZA at the pinnacle of his powers, powers that later served to influence everyone from Kanye West to El-P. Together, the Diggs cousins captured the genius essence and the elemental, unadulterated hip-hop resulting from their alchemy in the lab hasn’t been since and probably won’t ever again.
“I am not a human being” is a refrain popularized by Lil Wayne but as a declaritive statement it’d be more believable coming from GZA. It’s not hard to tell from the body of work that is Liquid Swords that he’s got a higher-functioning brain than the rest of humanity. An assertion widely attributed to Einstein states, in essence, that majority of us only use 10 to 20 percent of our brain’s potential at any given time, GZA’s penmanship in 1995 puts him solidly in the minority. Like the rest of the first wave of Wu solo albums, Liquid Swords borrows heavily from Kung Fu flick imagery (Shogun Assassin in this case) and GZA’s calm, purposeful timbre accentuates lyrical sharpness that would put Li Mu Bai’s blade The Green Destiny to shame. He cuts through RZA’s audio dope with the acumen and ease of a practiced rhyme fiend and a lyrical edge honed to a degree precise enough to split a baby’s hair. The first line from the title track “when the emcees came, to live out the name/ and to perform, some had to snort cocaine, to act insane… ”is to this day one of the most recognizable opening stanzas in rap music, period.
GZA gets some of his Wu cohorts and affiliates to ride shotgun with him on a number of tracks, but it’s clear this is his baby as he corrals the different inviduals to not only stick to the mission objective of individual songs, and the LP as whole, he gets each emcee’s very best bars. Masta Killah and Inspectah Deck hold court along with GZA on “Duel of the Iron Mic” like a trio of feudal Japanese warlords, while Method Man and Ghostface spaz out on stellar guest turns on the classics “4th Chamber” and “Shadowboxin” respectively. GZA hands the reins to Killah Priest for “B.I.B.L.E.”(Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) as the quintessential bookend to an LP full of Five Percent knowledge that serves as a thought-provoking end to a sonically and lyrically eventful voyage.
If there is anything to be learned from Liquid Swords in 2012 it can be summarized by a trite line from The Genius, “I don’t waste ink, nigga I think.” It’s a classic among classics and rightfully belongs in any self-professed hip-hop head’s Mt. Rushmore. RZA’s beats interweave painfully emotionally r&b samples, grimy atmostpherics, gritty drums, martial arts movie dialogue and chess themes which all serve as the perfect canvas for the “sharpest motherfucker in the whole clan” to demonstrate his prowess with verbal swordplay. GZA for his part conveys overarching ideas of war with self, the world at large, and pushing oneself artistically to the limit as a coping mechanism–expressing a coherent worldview through top flight craftsmanship.