It feels cynical when we only talk about albums when it’s their anniversary, but 20 years since its release, the GZA’s Liquid Swords is an album worth revisiting. More than two decades after the Wu came swarming out the slums of Shaolin, the crew itself might not be what it once was (let’s just pretend A Better Tomorrow never happened, OK?), but their logo will forever mean something to hip-hop fans across the globe. As Method Man once rhymed on “House of Flying Daggers”: “See these fans can't resist the rush, they Wu-Tang for life/Scarred for life, they can't forget the cuts.” And no Wu album sliced through hip-hop to leave as distinct a scar as GZA’s Liquid Swords. Mixing imagery of street life with metaphors about chess and martial arts, and throwing in some philosophy and spirituality for good measure, Liquid Swords is the most Wu-Tang of any of the Wu-Tang albums because it brings the uniqueness of Wu’s aesthetic to the forefront. 36 Chambers is the more versatile offering, thanks to the many members involved, but Liquid Swords is the one that acutely focuses on the ideas the Wu championed as a whole.
What sets the album apart, first and foremost, is the man born Gary Grice. Liquid Swords was released in 1995, but the GZA isn’t your typical ’90s rapper—he’s really an ’80s rapper at heart who just happened to blow up in the ’90s. At 49 years old, he’s not only the oldest member of the Clan; he’s two years older than ’80s stalwarts like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap. It shows up in his flow too; compare his understated, slow-winding delivery on “Shadowboxin” versus Method Man’s in-pocket spitfire. Liquid Swords is often mistaken as GZA’s debut album, but he actually debuted in 1991 as the Genius with Words From the Genius. The album was released on Cold Chillin—a label whose best-known acts were, again, guys like G Rap and Kane as well as Biz Markie and MC Shan. His old school ethos shows up in his intricate wordplay as well—GZA preferred to write his rhymes piecemeal, rather than walking on the spot like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were known to do.
with their kung fu kicks and chess metaphors, Wu brought an Eastern influence to their music that was all their own—and no one quite embodies it like the GZA.
GZA’s age isn't the only thing that made him unique. There were plenty of rugged rappers in the ’90s, the Wu included. But with their kung fu kicks and chess metaphors, Wu brought an Eastern influence to their music that was all their own—and no one quite embodies it like the GZA. Wu albums were always littered with kung fu movie samples, but GZA uses dialogue from Shogun Assassin to create one of the eeriest album intros imaginable. 36 Chambers featured "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," but no one takes chess more seriously than GZA, LS's cover is set on a chess board, and the deluxe version of the album came with a chess set. (If that's not enough, GZA later revisited the topic on his collaboration album with DJ Muggs, Grandmasters.)
Beyond the GZA, the RZA is in top form here as well. The RZA thought Liquid Swords would be the album that would help the Wu win over college kids, and he was right; it’s a dark album for a cold world best enjoyed on headphones, not stereos and certainly not clock radio speakers. The sound is crisper, with more care paid to the mastering of the album than any of the other solo Wu releases. In a weird way, Liquid Swords almost feels like RZA’s most personal project—even more so than his first solo album, Bobby Digital in Stereo, where he rapped from the perspective of his alter-ego, Bobby Digital. Under RZA’s five-year plan, he was the supreme leader of the group, and he was certainly the guiding hand behind all of Wu’s first batch of solo albums. Not to say that the production isn’t spectacular, but the appeal of Method Man’s Tical and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers are very much tied up with their respective charismatic and idiosyncratic stars. As a producer, RZA came into his own with the cinematic production of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. But Cuban Linx isn’t exactly an album RZA was eager to make.
Years ago in an interview with Complex he told us, “After Cuban Linx came out, I already knew how many thugs and gangsters were born and that it would make. I knew how many people would be glorified by it. I knew that when the movie Scarface came out, we all wanted to sell drugs. I knew I had the same power with that album. I didn’t want to be responsible for it, but I did want those kinds of people to listen to me.” Liquid Swords, on the other hand, finds RZA at his most experimental, pushing the boundaries of his sound; the title track is the kind of beat only hip-hop heads would appreciate, the production on “Gold” is as dense as its subject matter, and “4th Chamber” is the stuff nightmares are made of.
It's not just his beats either. RZA's verse on "4th Chamber" is one of his best (we'll never think of the word "iris" the same), and his ire can be felt on the intro of "Labels." While “Labels” isn’t the best song on Liquid Swords, it is its most poignant. Both GZA and RZA embarked on failed solo careers before forming the Wu. (We’re gonna go ahead and assume RZA hopes we all pretend “Oooh We Love You Rakeem” never happened.) GZA’s darts at the music industry are based on the real scars earned from learning industry rule #4080 the hard way. In many ways, Liquid Swords is the culmination of what cousins RZA, GZA, and ODB had been working toward back when they started out as a trio called Force of the Imperial Master. By the time LS rolled around, RZA's master plan of industry takeover came to life: Various labels were invested in promoting Wu solo projects, and their brand was so strong the Clan had five albums charting on Billboard at once.
Liquid Swords often plays second fiddle to Rae’s masterful Cuban Linx. Rightfully so, Cuban Linx is the best Wu solo album, and it popularized mafioso rap. But there were other rappers who did mafioso rap just as well, Nas and Biggie in particular. Meanwhile, Method Man’s flow and personality made him the breakout star when Wu’s debut dropped, but similar to what 36 Chambers did for Meth, The Chronic did for Snoop Dogg. ODB was obviously the most eccentric of the group, but he wasn’t the only rapper people thought was “crazy” at the time—Dirty and Busta Rhymes literally shared the same psycho ward cell in the video for “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check.” (And then there's this magazine cover). But there’s no one who quite matches up to the cerebral wit of GZA. No one but him and RZA could have made an album quite like this one. And that’s why 20 years later, his sword still remains imperial.