Once upon a time, way back in the early '90s, a clan called Wu-Tang formed, with GZA "at the head." Two years after its seminal 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang, the Clan issued its twin classics: Method Man's Tical and GZA's Liquid Swords. Each album placed urban and kung fu mythology over dark, soulful loops, with producer RZA arranging them in stunning feng shui fashion. For fans of raw hip-hop, it was a time of righteous giants roaming the airwaves.
Those were the days before one Wu-Tang MC, Ol' Dirty Bastard, was locked up for being a maniac; before Redman, the Wu's Yoko Ono, stole Method Man away; and before GZA's shallow Beneath the Surface LP joined a dozen other Wu-affiliated albums in damping the market. The Clan's war stories, dusky beats and kung fu movie samples still made for decent music, but they weren't killing anybody.
Like Nas' Stillmatic, GZA's latest release, Legend of the Liquid Sword, makes titular reference to his breakthrough and shows rejuvenated energy and integrity. But while Legend is the best Wu album since Ghostface Killah's Supreme Clientele, it falls short of being a classic. GZA consistently overcomes his stylistic limitations through the use of concise, evocative lyrics and waves of internal rhymes. On "Luminal," for instance, he sketches out his horror show with journalistic detail, following a serial killer as he teaches a small town to lock its doors.
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But the fact remains that the vintage-sounding "Fam" would've blended into the background of the original Liquid Swords, whereas here it stands out as a highlight. Likewise, such tracks as the music industry double take "Did Ya Say That," the reggae-inflected "Highway Robbery" and the hard-hitting "Knock Knock" all merit multiple listens but leave one's breath intact. And straight-up misses like the lyrically gimmicky "Fame," which plays with celebrities' names, and "Animal Planet," which pours on the Bar-Kays strings too thickly, suggest that the best part of GZA's legend already may have been told.