The Wu-Tang Clan are nothing short of synonymous with ‘90s rap. They embody the time so glorified in the hip-hop canon as its “golden era”. Their collective, along with other New York artists such as Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., were massively influential and a primary reason that the dominant sound of the rap genre swung back to the east-coast’s grimy boom-bap in the wake of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s prevalent west-coast G-funk.
Through the marketing genius of the RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan were able to find success both as a collective and as individual artists. After the entire group achieved notoriety and fame with the release of 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the RZA provided instrumentals for several members to release solo material through different labels including Def Jam, RCA, and Elektra Records. Consequently, Wu-Tang members were able to expand their sound and personality outside the group while still frequently collaborating and appearing as much welcomed guests on each others’ records.
Among the most famous and critically acclaimed of these solo Wu-Tang records is the GZA’s Liquid Swords. The legendary project turns 25 this year and the GZA is embarking on a tour in celebration of the album. He will make a stop in Philadelphia when he plays at the Underground Arts this Friday, February 28th. Find tickets available for purchase here.
What follows will be a critical examination of where Liquid Swords ranks among solo Wu-Tang records. The question other Wu-Tang albums must pose to GZA “The Genius” is this: Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?
The Case for Liquid Swords by GZA
Despite arriving after solo releases from other members of the Wu-Tang (Method Man, ODB, Raekwon), Liquid Swords by GZA is in many respects the purest follow-up to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Firstly, the rotation of features across this tracklist includes every original member of the collective. Additionally, Liquid Swords fully embraces the kung-fu aesthetic in an even more coherent manner than its predecessor; heavily (and tastefully) sampling dialogue from the martial arts film Shogun Assassin throughout its runtime.
The eerie tale of the Shogun Assassin opens the album; setting a tone of darkness and mystery that will permeate the entire listening experience. This atmosphere is due in large part to the production of the RZA who created the instrumentals and recorded the album in his basement studio, as was typical for all Wu-Tang early releases. His beats, which often include a combination of strings, bass tones, and vibe-like textures, create a haunting ambiance that is simultaneously hypnotic and enjoyable. All Wu-Tang members are able to find their footing and lyrically weave in and out of these melodies, but it is The Genius who shines brightest in the dark.
Upon the album’s release, GZA pegged the title as “a concept of being lyrically sharp, flowing like liquid metal…”. He certainly follows this concept as Liquid Swords truly cemented the GZA as a deadly sharp poet, even among others in the Wu-Tang who have proven their lyrical prowess. He calmly meditates on the subjects of crime, philosophy, and even chess (“Gold” contains what is very likely the best chess reference in rap history) while managing to match the creepy production and interludes at every turn.
While one strength of this record is its relentless consistency, there are standout moments worth mentioning. The transition from the Shogun Assassin dialogue-sample to the infectious hook on the introductory title track sets the mood impeccably for the album that follows. Additionally, “Shadowboxin” finds both Method Man and The Genius in top form as they trade verses over one of RZA’s most memorable instrumentals.
Liquid Swords is often discussed as one of, if not the greatest Wu-Tang solo projects. Even after 25 years, this praise holds up as well deserved. But is it genuinely the superior Wu-Tang solo release? Let’s continue our journey into the deep recesses of Shaolin style.
Other Contenders For the Top Spot
Tical by Method Man
Method Man’s Tical, arriving in 1994, was the first solo Wu-Tang effort post 36 Chambers. RZA’s decision to make Method Mad the group’s top priority made a lot of sense. He proved to be the most visible rapping member of the collective on their joint venture, appearing on 8 of the album’s 12 tracks, and prominently laid down the law on his titular song. While other members of the Wu-Tang are sprinkled across Tical, this project has notably less contributory features from the collective and sounds more like a two-man show with Meth on the mic and RZA on the backing instrumentals.
This two-man show, much like Stockton and Malone during the same time period, was a powerful combination. Tical is filled to the brim with straight rhymes, never pretending to possess crossover appeal or be concerned with commercial radio play. Similar to Liquid Swords, there is a darkness cast over the whole project. However, this atmosphere is considerably more urgent and deranged as Meth incessantly wages lyrical warfare while dancing around subjects of cannabis consumption, life in the projects, and traditional braggadocious rap.
A true highlight on the record appears when fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon joins Method Man for “Meth vs. Chef”. As noted above, RZA was crafting instrumentals for several members of the collective at the time. He often had the rappers of the Wu-Tang battle-rap over the same beat as a competitive strategy to decide who would obtain the rights to any given instrumental. This song is famously a product of one such recorded battle and showcases some of the finest verses on the project.
Tical, recently revealed to stand for “Taking Into Consideration All Lives”, is often the forgotten Wu-Tang solo album from the releases immediately following 36 Chambers. A few tracks do certainly pale in comparison to the highs reached by Method Man on choice tracks from the group’s debut, but overall Tical holds up as a quality record and proof that a Wu-Tang member could successfully go solo.
Return of the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version by Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Rest in peace ODB, forever the most enigmatic and experimental member of the Wu-Tang collective. Ol’ Dirty Bastard holds the distinction of “most recognizable voice” among members of the Wu-Tang Clan, and it’s not even particularly close. He built off his versatile delivery and obscene lyrical content from 36 Chambers and packaged it together in 1995 for his studio solo debut Return of the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version.
Something that often flies under the radar with Ol’ Dirty Bastard is just how damn catchy his hooks were. RZA and ODB continually found the right choruses, some half-rapped and half-sung, that kept fans bopping their heads and singing along. It’s easy to be dismissive about ODB’s commercial viability because of his disheveled appearance and vulgar personality. However, Return of the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version is the only solo album from the Wu-Tang that’s received a Grammy nomination for best rap album (ultimately losing to Naughty by Nature’s Poverty’s Paradise).
Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s raspy fluctuating voice drives this album along and fits perfectly with the ambiance of both instability and urgency found throughout the tracklist. Right out of the gate “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” captures the ears of listeners with a repetitive dissonant ring before ODB gleefully articulates the unforgettable chorus. It should come as little surprise that this song has been sampled or interpolated on at least 80 other tracks.
Right from the album’s opening moment, skits and interludes abound throughout ODB’s debut. Most of them are comical in nature and all push forward the idea of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s personality existing in a warped and twisted frame. These moments, coupled with the raw sounds to be heard (moans, cries, shrieks…there’s really something for everyone) make for this project to be a very unconventional listening experience, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon
Right alongside Liquid Swords by GZA, this is the album that’s very likely most frequently cited as the greatest solo Wu-Tang release. The album’s high level of critical acclaim is for good reason. More so than any other record, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx popularized street-related, Mafioso rap on the east coast. No other Wu-Tang project matched the cinematic experience these songs made when combined in totality. In fact, the record was conceived with a movie in mind; one in which Raekwon would be the star, Ghostface Killah the guest star, and the RZA as director.
This cinematic music experience was largely successful because Raekwon and Ghostface (who appears on 12 of the album’s 17 tracks) excel in the area of hip-hop storytelling. These MCs were no strangers when it came to constructing a narrative driven verse and proved as much over and over again on Built 4 Cuban Linx. The lyrical material was inspired by real events that both rappers encountered while growing up in Staten Island, New York. This resulted in the bars dripping with visceral imagery as each rapper painted a portrait that was both emotional and realistic.
Among the most exciting moments on the album is the cut “Verbal Intercourse” featuring Nas in addition to Ghostface Killah. Not only would this be the first collaboration with a rapper outside of the Wu-Tang circle, but Nas appears to understand the significance and delivers a tremendous verse, managing to match the linguistic complexity of both Ghost and the Chef.
The synergy between the duo of Raekwon and Ghostface was undeniable. During this time, they were inseparable; constantly joking with each other off the mic and challenging each other on the mic. It only seemed natural when Raekwon joined Ghostface Killah for 12 of the 16 tracks on the latter’s solo debut, Ironman.
Supreme Clientele by Ghostface Killah
How many albums can boast to having a song that makes Chris Rock “want to stab his babysitter.”? I’m not claiming that this distinction, in and of itself, makes Supreme Clientele a great album…but it certainly helps.
Supreme Clientele, released at the turn of the century, was Ghostface Killah’s second studio album and a serious stylistic departure from his work on acclaimed releases Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ironman. A large portion of the lyrics would be written while Ghostface and the RZA were on a several month long trip in Africa. Consequently, there are relatively few mentions from Ghost on the topics of crime and materialism, subjects that were formally deeply intertwined with his rapping. Instead, this record features what would soon become his signature stream-of-consciousness rhyme style as Ghost documents the trials and tribulations of a unique black artist’s emotional life.
There’s a level of vulnerability achieved by Ghostface across this album’s lyrics that separated him from the rest of the Wu-Tang collective. He captures tender emotions like love and acceptance without sacrificing his status as an unforgiving survivalist in the rap game. There’s also remarkable innovation across Supreme Clientele as Ghostface experimented with new styles and cadences while writing devoid of music in Africa. Never before had Ghostfaced paid such attention to the sound of his lyrics and how he could stack syllables to create verses whose sum was entirely more than their parts.
The RZA singled out Ghostface Killah as the Wu-Tang member he would work most heavily with for the second-generation Wu-Tang releases. This decision undoubtedly benefited this record as it quickly amazed listeners amid middling reviews for other Wu-Tang projects of the time. The RZA was no longer the sole producer, as he had been for earlier releases, but he still had his hands on every aspect of the finished product; reworking and remixing beats from other involved producers so as to create a cohesive sound. The beats are noticeably more glamorous and match the maximalist intensity of Ghostface on the mic.
Below is one humble person’s opinion on the best of the best from Wu-Tang solo efforts. The ranking is far from set in stone. Liquid Swords is an undeniable classic to me…but in the end I could put nothing else but Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele in my top spot.
- Supreme Clientele by Ghostface Killah
- Liquid Swords by the GZA
- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon
- Fishscale by Ghostface Killah
- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II by Raekwon
- Tical by Method Man
- Ironman by Ghostface Killah
- Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version by Ol’ Dirty Bastard