The only Wu member to release an album before the group's formation, GZA has suddenly become the most underrated member of the Wu Tang. There was a time (most obviously directly after the release of his classic debut, 1995's legendary Liquid Swords) when GZA was known the hip-hop world over for lyrical dexterity and brilliant vocal rhythms. But since ODB's death, Ghostface's ascendancy within the indie community, and RZA's high profile film-scoring - not to mention Method Man's for-the-streets deodorant commercials - it seems like everyone has forgotten the Genius. Although 2003's Legend of Liquid Swords proved to be a triumphant, if not quite perfect, return to form for the emcee, the album garnered little attention, despite almost universally positive reviews. Quick listens to that album's best tracks - the "Labels"-like "Fame," the crime-novella "Luminal," and the sexy "Stay in Line" - lead wonderfully into what is basically GZA's fourth album, Grandmasters, a stellar collaboration with DJ Muggs that is one of the year's best hip-hop records.
Created out of what seems like a genuine chemistry, the album is a near-perfect combination of the two veterans' strengths. After a brief opening, "Those That's 'Bout It" knocks the record back to 1995. This is that classic Wu sound, and GZA responds with a hunger to destroy: "Enemies get cooked like eggs as they scramble/ He lived, but he still lost his legs as he gambled."
The lyrics get even better as the album goes on. On "General Principles": "You know these goddamned streets are so gritty/ with sour milk from titties that'll spoil the city." On "Unprotected Pieces": "A high voltage power line/ surrounds the gold mine/ soldiers on the front line/ who sell dimes and hold nines/ many times enjoying themselves/ much too much/ they hit the clutch/ before they pull out on such and such." On "Queen's Gambit" he combines a sex tale with football metaphors and expertly weaves team names into his rhymes: "They spread eagles like wide receivers/ as I rammed them in the end zone/ and they became true believers."
The beats are uniformly excellent. After the largely disappointing Dust and the uneven collaboration with Tricky on 1999's Juxtapose, Muggs has returned to form, and although no one would put Muggs on the same level as RZA, there are some fantastic beats here that even top his best work on Cypress Hill's early records. The taut drum breaks on "All in Together Now" lend an expert time-out to the already fantastic sample-driven beat. The vocal samples on the record are perfect, like the chipmunk on "Unprotected Pieces," the classic Wu vocal cut-ups on "General Principles," and the soulful, beautiful, trip-hop-styled addition on "Queen's Gambit"; the moody production on the latter could only be described as a triumph. Muggs even saves the one GZA misstep, a bad restyling of the chorus to his classic "Gold" for "Illusory Protection," with echoed drums and pounding bass that sounds like the middle of a hurricane inside a cave.
Grandmasters is stunning, the kind of record that makes you wonder where classic records have been all these years. Each beat seems like you've heard it before; each verse sounds like a classic moment from some lost record. The album sounds like it came from some better era, where emcees were only focused on their skill and producers crafted dark manifestos. But if this sounds like nothing else right now, it's even more important. This is what hip-hop should be: focused, lean and unforgiving.
Label site: http://www.angelesrecords.com
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