Although Hip-Hop didn’t start this way, by the time Liquid Swords rolled around the verse became the center of the genre. Everything else was supposed to serve the verse, instead of contributing to a bigger idea. Beats couldn’t express an emotion or stand on their own. They couldn’t be danceable. That would be ‘too commercial’. The beats exist solely so the rapper will have something to rap over. Musical experimentation was also thrown out the window. Now that genre produced albums, rappers didn’t have to turn to other genres for inspiration and ideas. Hip-Hop stopped being a genre thriving on outside influence and become one that exists so rappers will show off their verbal skills.
If this sounds like guitar wankey, it’s because it is. The songs don’t drag beyond the four-minute mark, but there is no spark in the musical elements. Perhaps there is in the words, but words don’t need a musical backing to be powerful. Poetry and literature existed long before Hip-Hop.
Few albums epitomize this approach like Liquid Swords. Similar sounding albums, like Illmatic or The Infamous are just proof at how shallow this is. Illmatic was Hip-Hop distilled, but it was short, accessible and had an aim. The Infamous had very few ideas, but it wasn’t just tough guys bragging. The Infamous was about the paranoia of living in the street. It talked about killing people and selling drugs, all for survival with a banging and atmospheric production. It’s almost a soundtrack to a Fallout game. What is Liquid Swords‘ idea?
Only few tracks deviate from the subject of how good GZA’s rapping is, and their ideas are nothing new either. The aforementioned albums did a better job at portraying the streets, so all “Gold” and “Cold World” do is just sound like a decent addition to these albums. Then again, you can make an album that’s all about chest-beating and macho bullshit and make it work. Wu-Tang Clan’s debut did it right, but 36 Chambers had more than ‘clever lyrics’. It had a variety of MC’s and energy. They rapped as if they believed they were the best. Compare GZA’s performance on “Dual of the Iron Mic” or “Swordsman” to his climatic verse in “Protect Ya Neck”. Where does he sound more confident? No amount of clever lyrics will help you if you can’t make me believe you are that good.
In fact, even the lyrics are not that clever. Few lines stuck out. There’s the end of “Gold”, which is pretty effective, and the second verse of the title track. Another very memorable lyrics is Reakwon’s “My slang is out of this world”. I remember the days when I was afraid of some kids becuase their slang was crazy.
Maybe GZA was trying to match the beat. Unlike GZA, who shows an occasional spark, RZA has none in here. The beats are anemic, lacking anything that makes them do more than prevent the songs from being acappella. “Living in the World Today” is the worst offender. The beat is barely audible, and it’s not a clever experiment combining Rap with Ambient. Other offenders include the title track, “Cold World”, “Dual of the Iron Mic” and the otherwise pretty good “Labels”. Two tracks in particular have ideas that quickly fall apart. “Gold”‘s best first sounds aggressive and loud, but it quickly turns to white noise. “4th Chamber” opens with an unsettling, alien sound only for it to disappear. Only “Swordsman” has drums that are there. RZA has some interesting ideas, but shoving a quirky sound in the back of the beat does not make you creative, but cowardly. The Kong Fu audio clips are great, and provide great intros and outros but they only help to emphasize how lifeless these beats are.
If I lived in the era of ‘Hip-Hop is Dead’, I might’ve given this a pass. Rap music produced too much quality material to stay stuck in a past full of undeveloped ideas. Perhaps this was really ground breaking so long ago, but if today artists like Clipping, Tyler, El-P, Azealia Banks, Foreign Beggars and Kanye West are releasing music so much more exciting and daring, what does this has to offer?
2 liquid swords out of 5