Liquid Swords

Liquid Swords

For sheer lyrical density, there isn’t much in the Wu-Tang universe—or in ’90s hip-hop more generally—that matches Liquid Swords. Calling GZA the intellectual of the group gets it only partly right: Where Wu-Tang’s other MCs were exciting in part for the ways they exploded or lashed out, GZA could sail through metaphor after multisyllabic metaphor with the impassive grace of the B-movie samurai the group so beautifully mythologized. A portrait emerged: Where even a thoughtful rapper like Nas had moments of emotional outbursts, GZA remained stoic and inward as thought—the guy you fear the most in part because he says the least. “I ain’t particular, I bang like vehicular homicide on July Fourth from Bed-Stuy,” he raps on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” like a toothpick pulled clean out of a just-baked cake. He’s doing crime. Did you even notice? In a lot of ways, Liquid Swords is a relic: With the exception of Kendrick Lamar, rap—at least mainstream rap—stopped being as focused on lyricism and technical prowess, not to mention became a little less emotionally opaque. You can hear GZA’s legacy in underground rappers like Ka or even Earl Sweatshirt, whose introspective fragments used language like building materials in the construction of shelter from the outside world. Rakim had explored the metaphorical stars, and MCs like Big Daddy Kane—earthbound as he was in his appetites—took the details of street life to new narrative levels, but GZA made rap feel mystical. To use a potentially overused image, he wasn’t just rapping—he was making movies for your head.

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