The Genius and His Liquid Swords
An introduction to The Gza's "Liquid Swords"
by Ken Jenie
The 90s was a great era for hip hop. It was a decade where the world was introduced to many of artists still relevant today – Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, and The Wu Tang Clan, and a time when many great (and now considered classic) albums were made. One of those great albums is Liquid Swords by the Gza of the Wu Tang Clan. Released late 1995, Liquid Swords was the 4th solo album by the Staten Island, New York, group, and displayed the talents of the Gza, who was then considered the best lyricist in the Wu (earning him the title: The Genius).
The combination of Gza’s wit and some of Rza’s darkest, dissonant, and dirtiest production made Liquid Swords one of my personal favorite albums of all time – one that I listened to and analyzed countless times with my peers. I can remember sitting in my apartment late at night breaking down individual bars with Ras Muhamad, who is equally as enthusiastic about this album, and being blown away when we thought we “got it,” which as we probably didn’t.
What makes the Gza such a great lyricist is the concision in presenting his thoughts. One can only assume that he slowly and carefully construct sentences because even the most trite article is appropriately and effectively used. If you listen to hip hop, you will notice a large part of the vocal rhythm is determined by the sentences’ syllables. To fulfil a rhyme pattern, emcees often would use words whose syllables fit. This, though not making the sentence incoherent, often times make the thought deviate slightly off the point. Creating perfect sentences is not an easy task, and the Gza consistently does it with aplomb.
So let’s get into the album. I won’t break down individual bars as that is part of the fun of listening to this album, and if you are curious you can find the full album on the Youtube link at the end of this article.
The relatively long Shogun Assassin introduction (it’s about a minute long) sets a serious tone before the Liquid Swords instrumental actually comes in. The most accessible Rza instrumental on the album sets stage for Gza to perform his most battle-emcee braggadocios set of bars. He spits a ton of quotables here including:
My minimum table stacks a verse on a gamble
Energy is felt once the cards are dealt
With the impact of roundhouse kicks from black belts
and the second verse closer:
Now come aboard, it’s Medina bound
Enter the chamber, and it’s a whole different sound
It’s a wide entrance, small exit like a funnel
So deep it’s picked up on radios in tunnels
Niggas are fascinated how the shit begin
Get vaccinated, my logo is branded in your skin
Liquid Swords is a great opener, introducing the Gza’s punchline abilities.
The second song, Duel of the Iron Mics, though similar to Liquid Swords‘ with its braggadocios tone, uses schemes and imagery as the medium. Duel is also one of Liquid Swords’ posse cut, enlisting the talents of Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s chorus serves as transition between the emcees, Masta Killa verse stands out; on par with the Gza’s and opening with:
This is not an 85 affair, made clear
When the Gods get on to perform storms blew up
Inspectah Decks verse surprisingly deviates from the general theme of the song. Known as a punchline-heavy rapper, here he instead laments on the conditions of New York’s urban life:
Adults kill for drugs plus the young bucks bust
Ducking handcuffs, throats get cut when dough rush
Out of town foes look shook but still pose
We move like real pros through the streets we stroll
Bullet holes lace the windows in one-six-oh
So control the avenues that’s the dream that’s sold
Building lobbies are graveyards for small-timers
Bitches caught in airports, kis in they vaginas
Though the liner notes says it features the Rza and Method Man, Living in the World Today is a Gza solo track. The theme is similar to Duel… but, in this case, fully presents Gza’s abilities through 2 verses. The song has an incredible (and much quoted) closer:
Punchlines that’s unstoppable
Ring like shots from Glocks that attract cops
Around the clubs and try to shut down the hip-hop
But we only increase if everything is peace
Father You See King the police
Those 5 bars describes the negative point of view many had on hip hop, The last bar spells out FUCK the police (Father U C King the police), simple and clever enough to echo the sentiments of many towards the authorities.
Gold changes the pace of the album. This time the Gza takes on the character of a drug dealer competing for territory. The imagery is violent, and the tone has an air of desperation – the character always walking a thin line between killing for survival and greed. The following chorus pretty much sums it up:
Fiends ain’t coming fast enough
There is no cut that’s pure enough
I can’t fold, I need gold, I re-up and reload
Product must be sold to you
Next on the album is Cold World where The Gza and Inspectah Deck describes the grim and often violent living conditions of urban life. What makes the song compelling is that the two neither glorify or condemn the situation. It is a reality they experience and describes it as such. Here is 4 bars from Gza’s verse:
Links was snatched off necks, scars on throats
Jackets took, after bullet rips through coats
Against those who felt the cold from the steel made em fold
And squeal, once the metal hit the temple of his grill
Considered one of the highlights of Liquid Swords, Labels is a song that revolves solely around schemes and wordplay. The idea is simple enough, using the names of record labels, the Gza describes his dissatisfaction with the record industry.
TOMMY ain’t my motherfuckin’ BOY
When you fake moves on a nigga you employ
We’ll all emerge off your set, now you know God damn
I show living large niggas how to flip a DEF JAM
The song’s clever use of wordplay was celebrated when it was first released, the concept becoming synonymous with with the Gza. He unfortunately kept repeating the wordplay concept over and over again in subsequent releases to a point where, in my opinion, he was beating a dead horse (though no less creative as this one).
4th Chamber has one of Rza’s grimiest instrumental. It is one of those songs that, for a lack of a better term, amps you up. This time joining Gza is Ghostface Killah, The Rza, and Killah Priest. Ghostface Killa has the stand out verse here, performing eyebrow-raising lyrics such as:
Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet?
Why did Judas rat to Romans while Jesus slept?
Stand up, you’re out of luck like two dogs stuck
Ironman be sipping rum, out of Stanley Cups, unflammable
Aside from his distinct flow, what makes Ghostface Killah such a captivating character is his often head-scratching bars. I until this day am still wondering what the point of those 4 lines are.
Method Man contributes to the following song, Shadowboxin, where he and the Gza flex their lyrical prowess. It is a pretty light song, in my opinion, and serves as a little breathing space in the middle of the album.
Hells Killa Hills 10304 introduces us the mafia-inspired Wu Tang Clan theme, Wu Gambino, where each member has their own mob names: Ghostface is Tony Starks, Rza is Bobby Steel, etc. There is even a introduction skit with the Rza calling out and intimidating a Mr. Greco during some sort of transaction. Gza then introduces the song with “life of a drug dealer” and proceeds to describe some of the activities the Wu Gambino is involved in as well as their reach around the globe.
Right after the mafia-inspired tune comes one of my favorites in Liquid Swords, Investigative Reports. The news report soundbytes as well as U God’s chorus ties Gza, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah’s verses together as (you can probably infer from the title) an investigative report. The details really contribute to this song being one that is thematic. Some of my favorite segment from this song is this Gza opening quotable:
Calling all cars, calling all cars! Ghetto
Psychos, armed and dangerous, leaving mad scars on those
Who are found bound, gagged and shot, when they blast the spot
Victims took off like astronauts
Swordsman is Gza’s most introspective song in the album. A very refreshing change from the many braggadocios and violent themes found in the album, Swordsman reveals his spiritual leanings, which I infer from the lyrics is influenced by the Five Percenter movement (though one could probably guessed it from everybody calling each other “God” in the album). It is difficult for me to pick a section of his verse, so here is most of his first.
I come through with the Wu and drop math
And versatile freestyle bombs on phonographs
And deliver, all things in number and weight
Searched to death, on how living things relate
Cause at a young age, I was molded in a religion I relied on
And got caught up in superstition
Scared to split pole, duck black cats
Once in a while, threw salt over my back
But with knowledge of self from off the shelf
Made things seemed complicated now small like elves
So turn off the lights, light a candle, and have a seance
Pull the lid off the Dean Martin scandal
Witches, warlocks, spooks and holy ghosts
RZA, let’s defraud the hoax
Next comes the last Gza track on Liquid Swords, I Gotcha Back, where again he describes the violent conditions he witnessed growing up. He ends the verse on a poignant note, expressing his dissatisfaction with the situation and helplessness of not being able to change it.
It’s so hard to escape the gunfire
I wish I could rule it out like an umpire
But it’s an everlasting game, and it never cease to exist
Only the players change, so
I gotcha back, but you best to watch your front
Cause it’s the niggas that front, they be pullin stunts
As I mentioned before, I Gotcha Back is the final Gza song on Liquid Swords, but it isn’t the final song on it. Surprisingly, the album ends with a Killah Priest song produced by 4th Chamber. The song curiously does not have Gza appearing even for a brief moment, but serves as a perfect ending for the album. B.I.B.L.E. (short for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) is a song about finding spiritual enlightenment and unveiling the often oppressive nature of religion. I personally would have preferred the album to end on I Gotcha Back, but perhaps one of the things that make Liquid Swords so memorable is this album closer.
This was a brief introduction to Liquid Swords, one of the undisputed best hip hop album ever to be released. Inside you can find some of the Gza’s best and memorable moments, outshining the many guests found through out the album (The whole Wu Tang Clan guests in this album + Killah Priest has a song entirely to himself); his delivery and knack for lyrics making this album absolutely his. There are a lot of details you can find and scrutinize in this album, and though I wish I could have talked about every single one of them, it is better for you to listen and enjoy them for yourselves. If you have Liquid Swords in your music collection, do play it on your stereo, and if you don’t, have a listen to the whole album by clicking play on the Youtube video below.