GZA's Seminal debut "Liquid Swords" turns 20 today.
Hip-hop is an art form with a lot of wiggle room for diversity. Nowadays, it’s a little more common to embrace eccentricities, whereas in the 90s everything was a little more cohesive. The records coming out of New York City in the mid-90s by Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, and Jay Z all provided a commentary on New York street life while utilizing samples from the previous generation to create the instrumental canvas to tell their story.
These days, for every Joey Bada$$ you have a Young Thug, but the game was a lot more uniform twenty years ago when GZA released his critically acclaimed Liquid Swords. The twelve-song record might not reach Danny Brown-levels of weird, but for a record released in 1995 it was about as far out as they got.
The album begins with a sample from an old kung fu movie called Shogun Assassin. The Wu employed kung fu samples throughout their debut record Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), even beginning the whole shebang with a sample from their namesake film, Shaolin vs. Wu Tang. However, this time around it’s a little longer and a lot darker. It gives way into the Willie Mitchell-sampled instrumental and one of the catchier hooks in Wu-Tang’s history.
“When the MCs came to live out the name and to perform / Some had to snort cocaine to act insane before Pete Rock-ed it on / Now on with the mental plane to spark the brain with the building to be born”
GZA, whose name derives from the nickname ‘the genius,’ is obviously a smart guy, and it’s clear how he’s approaching this one. He’s dogging rappers for needing cocaine to spark their mind. GZA flows rhymes of pure excellence with a pretty lazy flow, choosing to give his words their full potential rather than relying on energy to make the people feel him. “I flow like the blood on a murder scene, like a syringe,” he says, matter-of-factly, before ending the opening verse with:
“I don't waste ink, nigga I think / I drop megaton bombs more faster than you blink / Cause rhyme thoughts travel at a tremendous speed / Clouds of smoke, of natural blends of weed / Only under one circumstance that's if I'm blunted / Turn that shit up, my clan in the front want it”
He’s not over-hyped, he dogs the use of drugs within the rap scene, and lets you know he’s only blunted under the influence of natural blends of weed. The most important line of the aforementioned block is the first one: “I don’t waste ink, nigga I think.”
GZA said in an interview with Wax Poetics, “Raekwon and Ghostface can step in and record a song in about forty-five minutes. I on the other hand, would often go back and finish rhymes that I started. I would say I pieced things together more slowly then. Songs generally take me two to three days to write. Sometimes I take different sentences and put them together.” Because of this method, the Genius has only released six records during the course of his twenty-six year career. For comparison, Ghostface and Rae each have double the amount of feature-length projects to their names. It’s apples and oranges, however, because you’d never hear GZA spit an entire album about riches and vacation. He’s deeper than that.
On “Labels,” our subject revisits the lessons of “Protect Ya Neck” to reassert the lesson that, “If you don't read the Label you might get poisoned.” The verse that follows must be one of the most underrated diss verses of all times, as GZA goes through bars while calling out labels by employing the double entendre. No one is safe as he defames Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Cold Chillin’, Arista, and a number of other legendary rap labels.
With “Swordsman,” GZA prepares some choice words for those who don’t question everything. “I'm no black activist on a so-called scholar's dick,” he says early on in the track that spits some of his brainiest bars to date. GZA annotated the song on genius to let people know that the end of the second verse was about supreme mathematics, a heady subject that influenced the Wu greatly.
Whether you chose to dig deep or listen more casually, GZA drops jewels across the entire LP. On “I Gotcha Back,” he poses the question, “What is the meaning of CRIME?” just to follow it up with the follow-up, “Is it Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime?” He isn’t called the Genius for nothing, and the album closer is the biggest testament to that.
“Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” is a proposed meaning for the word Bible if it were an acronym. It makes sense too, as that’s more or less what the Bible is trying to provide, those basic instructions to follow before you pass on to whatever is next. The lines are about as brainy as they come:
“But I ignored, and explored my history that was untold / And watched mysteries unfold / And dropped a jewel like Solomon, but never followed men / Cause if you do your brain is more hollow than / Space oblivia, or the abyss,” revisits the theme of “Swordsman” to always think for yourself.
“I did it anyway just to wake up the mind / Of those who kiss stones or prays on the carpet / Those who sit home, or sell books by the market / Need to chill and get their mind revived / For years religion did nothing but divide / The basic instructions before leaving earth,” urges listeners to always keep their mind revived, and to never fall in line with what others are doing just because.
The craziest part of “B.I.B.L.E.” is actually that the verses are spit by Killah Priest. GZA doesn’t even have a proper verse on the track. He elaborated on that choice by saying; “I really wanted to get Priest on the album. And when I did, he said he could cover the whole track, so we let him do it. It’s incredible to me, man. Some people still tell me that that it’s their favorite song off the album. I mean, it’s a really deep song. He broke down lots of things: preachers, ministries, churches, details, and a lot of insight on a lot of stuff. ‘The earth’s already in space, your bible I embrace, a difficult task I had to take…’ The song’s just perfect and ends the record out brilliantly.”
It can’t be an easy choice to allow someone else to take the reins on the album closer, but when it’s right, it’s right. “B.I.B.L.E.” is strong even without the Genius, and the fact that he was wise enough to see that attributes to his intelligence.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Wu record without a few posse cuts. Three massive tracks – “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “4th Chamber,” and “Investigative Reports” – bring a few Clansman along to spit some fire. The entire clan is featured at some point on the record, making it a tried and true Wu banger.
Liquid Swords just recently went platinum, which goes to show that this record has some serious wheels on it, even twenty years after its release. The depth of the lyrics certainly help it’s repeatability, but the classic production from the RZA deserves a mention as well. He produced each of the album’s tracks with the exception of “B.I.B.L.E.,” done by 4th Disciple.
The record has left a legacy as one of the great records in Wu-Tang, 90s hip hop, and rap history at large. You’re hard pressed to find any comprehensive list that doesn’t give Liquid Swords a mention, and it’s for good reason. The Genius, along with his extraordinary Wu-Tang Clan, crafted a tried and true masterpiece with this one.