“It was the night before New Years and all through the fucking projects, not a handgun was silent, not even a Tec.”
With that chilling twist on a hundred warm childhood memories, GZA (a.k.a., the Genius, a.k.a. the "head" of the Wu-Tang Clan) launched into “Cold World,” a track that rivals Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind” for its descriptive storytelling. But where Nas’ words play like a realistic novel, GZA’s build an image that is more cinematic. “Cold World” comes across as a hazy, dystopian nightmare where listeners can’t help but visualize dark city streets, shrouded by smoke and ice, with ghostly shadows flitting down side alleys as gunshots ring out.
This ominous, movie-like feel runs throughout GZA’s classic Liquid Swords album, which turns 20 years old this Saturday, November 7. Often considered one of the 50 greatest hip-hop albums of all time, Liquid Swords is one of the most quintessentially Wu-Tang projects ever made by a member of the Killa Beez. With grimy production by RZA that meshes perfectly with GZA’s gritty lyricism, and appearances from every member of the group, it’s pretty amazing how well the album holds up and really sets a tone—so much so that the tone has seeped into my writing.
At the heart of the album’s greatness is it’s lyrics. If I may break the mood, they’re like a Chipotle burrito: a hearty mix of braggadocio, metaphors, and street knowledge all wrapped inside a giant tortilla of Wu-Tang mysticism. So without further ado, since I know you’re all hungry for it, let’s take a look at some of the best lines from Liquid Swords.
“The liquid soluble that made up the chemistry / A gaseous element that burned down your ministry”
Dishing out an early dose of his cryptic braggadocio in “Duel of the Iron Mic,” GZA implies that the ink from his pen can build the world’s fundamental elements even as his voice tears down governments. The line would have been a pretty typical “I SPIT HOT FIRE” moment if it weren’t for the fact that the lyrics are so cloaked in mystery and cool intellect that you end up believing his hot fire probably could burn down political systems.
“Promised his moms a mansion with mad room / She died and he still put a hundred grand in her tomb / Open wounds, he hid behind closed doors / And still organizes crime and drug wars”
In “Gold,” a song that is as theatrical as any on the album, GZA ends his tale about a drug dealer’s mindset by identifying this guy—the lonely, wounded drug lord—as the idol that GZA wanted to be like. As a listener, you feel the emotional emptiness of the man because of his tortured past, and you can picture his slouched-over figure, sitting alone in a dark room, plotting his wars because they are all he has left. It’s a grim and sobering image, one that would have fit as the classic, tragic ending to the Godfather series if Part III had its shit together. If only they’d gotten GZA to review the script...
“Now watch me blow him out his shoes without clues / Cuz I won’t hesitate to detonate, I’m short-fused”
“4th Chamber” is a posse cut that is essential Wu-Tang listening. Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest, and RZA grace the track and go off on topics ranging from Genghis Khan to “camouflage chameleon ninjas scaling your building.” But it's GZA who anchors the track, closing his verse with the threat of a violent, destructive explosion. Even as the words tumble out with his typical calm, calculated delivery, that utter calm makes you wonder just what wisdom and what danger lies under the surface if he ever did explode. I guess we should just chalk it up to a friendly warning that Wu-Tang Clan, and GZA in particular, ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit.
Even though there are at least twenty other deserving quotables to choose from, I decided to make this list about quality over quantity. The real strength of GZA on this project, in my opinion, is his ability to weaves all those lyrics into complete songs that create one large cinematic impression. Whether he’s telling a story or just building an atmosphere, the effortless way GZA strings ideas along from one line to the next, seemingly without end—all to the ominous tones provided by RZA—is really what makes Liquid Swords special. It’s as classic as hip-hop gets.
[By Spencer Schmider. This is his Twitter.]