DJ Muggs vs. GZA
“Relevance” is the most worthless word in a reviewer’s lexicon. Who would want to be relevant in a musical world where 50 Cent tells M.O.P. to hit the gym? What hip-hop needs is more irrelevant, untrendy, non-radio-friendly music. What hip-hop needs are more albums like DJ Muggs and GZA’s Grandmasters.
From the jump, Muggs and GZA make their strategy clear: revisit and update the “classic” Wu Tang sound. On Grandmasters, Muggs succeeds where many other beatsmiths have failed by (finally!) latching onto the element that makes a classic Wu beat. Music critics trot out the same schpiel about RZA: “RZA introduced a dark production style based around kung-fu samples and vocal loops, etc., etc.” That’s right, but there’s more to a vintage Wu product than that. Listen closely: a textbook Wu beat employs a dynamic production style where the elements of the beat are rearranged on the fly to fit the individual vocalists.
Throughout Grandmasters, Muggs offers up deeply, but subtly, layered tracks that morph under GZA’s rhymes. On the murder mystery “Exploitation of a Mistake,” a mournful female vocal sample wells up nearly every time GZA mentions a female character. Meanwhile, on “General Principles,” Krylon cans and MTA trains rattle their way through the beat as GZA raps about the history and street roots of hip-hop. These and other beats (“Destruction of a Guard,” “Smothered Mate,” and “Unprotected Pieces”) are whole worlds unto themselves.
GZA, meanwhile, serves up his characteristic brand of highly abstract, tightly constructed lyrics. Whether it be the crime tales of “Destruction of a Guard” and “Exploitation of Mistakes,” or the laser-precise dissection of hip-hop beef on “Illusory Protection,” no album that has been released this year can match the density of story-telling and metaphorical complexity of GZA’s latest. By the time the “America”-esque love track “Queen’s Gambit” or the stripped-down “Unstoppable Threats” (feat. Prodigal Sunn and Masta Killa) roll around, all aspects of Grandmasters – the lyrics, the guests, the beats – are in sync.
Not that there aren’t obvious flaws in the album. Although not historically the most energetic MC, GZA serves up some verses (“Those That’s Bout It,” “All in Together,” and “Smothered Mate”) that sound mailed-in and/or poorly matched to the beat. Meanwhile, Muggs works with a set of fairly limited elements. The end result is a series of tracks that evoke shades of each other (“Destruction of a Guard” vs. “Exploitation of Mistakes” or “Advance Pawns” vs. “Unprotected Pieces”).
These flaws are trivial in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, a great Wu Tang album is a like storm-tossed sea: chaotic and endlessly deep. A great Wu Tang album is like Grandmasters. Take a deep breath and dive in.