"Wu-Tang is for the children."
When launched from the late Ol' Dirty Bastard's loose lips at the 1998 Grammy Awards, it seemed a crackishly unself-conscious outburst more rooted in one man's pathology than in the nine-member unit's philosophy. But the career trajectory of Wu-Tang's steely-faced elder, GZA (or the Genius), who will perform his 13-year-old sophomore album, Liquid Swords, on Monday, proves Ol' Dirty Bastard's thesis.
Like his Staten Island brethren, GZA—whose fifth album, Pro Tools, hit shelves Tuesday, August 19—has since eschewed the gloss of Liquid Swords, preferring the grain of RZA's sinister samples (from kung fu films to forgotten soul songs) to propel his street corner parables. So guileless has he remained, that when Dave Chappelle invited the lean rapper to perform on his explosive Comedy Central show in 2003, GZA barked his industry critical song "Knock, Knock." Faint spittle fanned the microphone in the staged recording session as the comedian moved his swiveling chair around the soundboard in pure groupie ecstasy.
GZA and his Wu associates' principled approach elicits that same childlike giddiness from their fanbase, that pre-poseur enthusiasm that most have stashed away with the onset of adulthood and a changing hiphop landscape. The indifference lining 50 Cent's delivery is not shared by GZA, nor is the affinity for thug-pop anthems. In fact, Pro Tools includes an off-hand Fiddy dis, "Paper Plate," which is as scathing as it is matter of fact: "Spray the Flea-Unit with pesticides/You can get your best ghostwriters, get them all to testify." Armed with the Wu-Tang's rustproof cultural armor, GZA gets at 50 for phoning in rhymes and being slickly mediocre. It seems bolder an endeavor than it really is, but with industry positioning trumping creativity for many rappers—and sales reigning supreme—it is an uncommonly framed dig.
Pairing his Pro Tools release with the Liquid Swords tour is an effective, if unplanned, strategy. Liquid Swords serves as both primer for new audiences and refresher for old ones to GZA's hearty rhymes. It's an amalgam of teachings indebted to Five Percenter cosmology and '70s-era martial arts cinema, scored with a sharp morality and childlike impudence. Meanwhile, GZA remains less vulnerable to "Hi Hater" critiques. His brand-aware diatribe "Labels" presaged none of the reactionary social consciousness that pigeonholed a swath of late '90s backpackers, and is no more apropos than at this overly consumptive moment. The harrowing tale "Cold World" features GZA adopting coarsened Bing Crosby-style narration parsed with tuneless belting by hook man Life.
The title track of Liquid Swords, a metaphor for hiphop labor, weaves them all together: "When the emcees came/to live out their name/Some had to snort cocaine to act insane." GZA had ushered in a change in hiphop practice, one where "the mental plane" would "spark the brain." Whether hiphop has passed its tipping point remains to be seen, but GZA is well equipped to present the culture in unadulterated form, if only for one night.