John O’Hara – Appointment in Samarra

84-1

In my To Kill a Mockingbird review, I talked about how classics, even when they fail, leave a lot to talk about. I was certain Mockingbird will be the classic that will offer the least interesting thing to say. How wrong I was. Along comes Appointment in Samarra, which doesn’t do anything beyond telling a decent, downward spiral type of story.

Downward Spiral Stories are great. They offer a chance for us to confront our flaws and the worst case scenarios. It’s one story type that should never be extinct. It’s also a story type that relies solely on the character. You can’t have an effective downward spiral if the character isn’t putting himself there. If it’s something from the outside that leads him down, then that’s just the author being mean.

Julian English’s downward spiral is well-written and is character-driven. Julian enters the spiral out of his own volition, and he keeps going downward because of his own flaws. When he reaches the bottom, he’s still offered a choice whether to hit it or stay afloat. O’Hara understands the structure, but he forgot to add themes to this story.

Compare it to the narrative found in Nine Ninch Nails’ album. In Reznor’s musical masterpiece, the character hits the bottom because of very specific traits. As shown in songs like “I Do Not Want This”, “Closer” and “Ruiner”, it’s an obsession with power, among other things that leads to the bottom. It may weird to compare a book to a music album, but even if The Downward Spiral doesn’t speak of events, it speaks of themes. The songs deal with the flaws that cause a man to enter a downward spiral. What were Julian’s flaws that made him go down there?

That’s an issue that hovers all over the book and prevents it from having an emotional impact. Perhaps O’Hara critiques the lifestyle of rich people who live in country clubs, but there aren’t enough moments to illustrate what’s wrong with it. He just shows people who don’t seem like very pleasant company, but if your charactes are plesant company you may be doing something wrong anyway. O’Hara fails to show something specific that is wrong with this society.

It’s an idea Ellis also explored, but Ellis used prose and events to create an atmosphere that made his whole society seem really awful. There is a moment, near the end of the book, where O’Hara says something about this lifestyle. By the time it comes, though, it’s too late. Julian is already too far down. You can’t add an event at the last moment to give the spiral meaning. The spiral gets its meaning by what causes the character to enter in the first place.

Since o’Hara only remembers to deal with his themes at the end – although the way he wraps them is satisfying enough – all the rest of the pages are just a fun, well-written story. O’Hara’s biggest strength is his prose. He writes in the same style pop fiction writers do. There are a lot of sentences without verbs, and he occasionally rambles on about a character’s background. He makes it work, though. That’s the only special thing about Appointment in Samarra. He takes an awful style of writing and makes it work. Nowhere have I felt the need to stop reading because the prose is too clumsy. Even when I was wondering what’s the point of the current details, they were well-written enough that they didn’t slow down the pace.

Good prose makes for a good story, but it wasn’t enough for a classic novel. It’s a fun downward spiral story that manages to have all events come from the characters. It fails to confront any of its themes until the end though, so it’s really just a pretty nice story. I neve thought that ‘just a pretty nice story’ could end up in Classics list.

3 bottles of whiskey out of 5

Coldplay – Parachutes

coldplay-parachutes_cd

“Yellow” has plenty of loud, crunchy guitars. There’s no Coldplay song that rocks this hard. Its existence is puzzling.

The two things that first come to mind about Parachutes are both misleading. Parachutes can sound like just the beginning of a band who became the biggest. It also can also sound like someone erased the subtitle Songs Inspired By Radiohead’s the Bends. Both of these views are misleading, and miss the point of what Parachutes is trying achieve.

It has the same sound as The Bends on the surface, including flirting with Space Rock on “Yellow” and “High Speed”. The atmosphere and the emotional core though, are different. Radiohead, as soft as they are, belong more with Nine Inch Nails and Industrial music in terms of emotions. The music is always cold, scared and paranoid. The difference between Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails is that Radiohead is the sound of not even trying to fight. In Radiohead’s world, there’s an antagonist. There’s no such thing in Coldplay’s Parachutes.

Parachutes is warm. It’s all about achieving an emotional intimacy with the listener. It turns down the distortion and hard drumming because this isn’t music to performed in a stadium. It’s meant to be listened late at night when you’re not sure if you’re feeling that bad. That’s where you get the slow bass in “Sparks” or the twinkling guitars in “Shiver”. The guitar playing also owes more to Midwest Emo than Radiohead. It creates twinkling sounds that engulfe the listener to create warmth. They’re not trying to create a texture as cold as modern life.

That’s why viewing this as a small debut album is doing it an injustice. It reveals exactly why Coldplay failed often after this. They’re not suited for making big music for big stadiums. The minimalism is not because of a lack of ideas, or because of fear of trying. Coldplay had a clear idea what Parachutes is. If they broke up after making this, it’d make sense.

It’s an album that gets its idea for most of its length. “Sparks” is the best example of the sound, with a bassline that makes the whole song. “Yellow”, despite being the loudest thing the band has ever done, has a Space Rock edge to it that brings it back to the concept. Warm Space Rock sounds impossible after “Planet Caravan”, but it exists. “Shiver” is the obvious highlight. It does sound a bit like Jeff Buckley, but it’s good in the same way Jeff Buckley was good.

It does sound like a classic in those great moments, especially in “Sparks” and “Shiver”. The problem is, while the band is excellent, Chris Martin brings everything down. He’s less the problem than what he sings. Plenty of times, he’s just given good enough when melodies. “We Never Change”, “Trouble” and “Spies” are all beautiful in instrumental department, but the melody Martin sings has none of the inspiration the band has. Remove the vocals, and it’s brilliant. Add them, and you’re getting a lot of noise preventing you from enjoying the song.

Chris Martin is also a fan of the falsetto, which is a problem. I’m sure the falsetto is hard to achieve, but it’s not a good defense of the technique. In fact, it makes it seem worse. Singing in this kind of album needs to sound natural, no matter how hard you practiced for it. Coldplay are trying to get an intimate atmosphere, after all. You can’t achieve that by making yourself seem different. Whenever Martin breaks into the falsetto, all it does is tells us Martin spent some time practicing. That’s great, but it sucks the emotions out the songs. Just listen to “High Speed” or “Shiver” and how well the choruses work without the falsetto.

Trying to understand why Coldplay are now the biggest band is fruitless. The band just appealed to a lot of people. They don’t have anything unique in them, and that’s okay. Parachutes is successful at what it does most of the time, even if the falsetto is too much sometimes. It doesn’t to seem to be going anywhere, so we’ll make do with what we have. “High Speed”, “Shiver” and “Sparks” are all very good songs anyway. Be prepared to be let down by the next installment.

3 Parachutes out of 5

All Games are Storytelling

All games are interactive stories. The dictionary defines ‘game’ as an interactive pastime meant to entertain. Before video games, it’s easy to see why this would be the optimal definitons. There are no characters in hide-and-seek or in basketball, but let’s describe them. Basketball is about two opposite teams trying to complete an objective, preventing the other one from completing theirs and thus coming out as winners. Hide-and-seek also has this structure of two opposite teams, only this time one team has just one person. Doesn’t this simple descriptions sound like a plot structure waiting to be filled? Isn’t Star Wars also about two opposite teams, trying to achieve their objectives and preventing the other from completing theirs?

It wasn’t apparent then. Basketball and hide-and-seek contain no characters. There’s no good and evil, and the opposite team don’t represent anything. This carried itself into the early video games, like in Pong. The two sides of Pong have no difference between them. Quickly, though, stories begun to appear. Pac-Man is a story. It’s a story of a creature running away from his enemies, collecting MacGuffins and occasionally finding the strength to face them by eating special fruits. Somewhere, someone wrote an article about Pac-Man being a story about drugs. Space Invaders is also a story. What’s the difference between it and a stereotypical action film? Both feature a hero killing a lot of bad guys in order to reach the Big Bad.

The story is told via the game mechanics. For a specific analysis, see my essay about Five Nights at Freddy’s where I noted how its game mechanics contribute to the storytelling. The game mechanics are the tools and obstacles the heroes face. The way they’re being used can tell us about the character. Pac-Man can try to collect the dots as fast as he can, or he can take his time and try to avoid the ghosts more. He can immidiately for the fruits, or keep them until things get tough. The ghosts also have their own behavior. They can either be programmed to follow you if they spot you, or merely go in a set movement pattern. I’m not sure what is actually programmed in Pac-Man, but that’s irrelevant.

All of these can tell us what the story is about and what it means, both what’s automatic and the choices that are left to the player. In literary analysis, a choice like whether the hero hurries to his objective or be cautious matters. It tells us about his general character. The enemy AI tells us about their character, too. If the ghosts have a set movement pattern, the hero faces a dumb, predictible enemy. If they follow him, he has a bigger challenge. The main difference between fiction and video games, however, is the element of choice.

This is what Klosterman said in his essay, “Pong X Infinity”. The analysis of video games should not ask what does this mean, but what could it mean. As I pointed out, you can choose Pac-Man’s behavior, and thus can lead to multiple different stories. RPG fans love to praise Fallout 2 and New Vegas for their amount of choices, but in fact all they do is expand on the element that defines video games. A choice whether to be more evasive or more confrontational may seem like a gaming preferance, but for literary nerds this is one of the most important character-telling moments.

That’s why praising a game for having a lot of choices as good storytelling is silly. Choices, as a storytelling device, are only useful if they expand the meanings the story can have. The choice in Pac-Man’s story are irrelevant because itx story leads nowhere. In the end, it’s just a cute arcade game. In Planescape: Torment, the choices matter because each influence not just the outcome but the meaning of the story.

It seems that recently, most games that are praised as story-reach are just games with a lot of text. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t take advantage of the unique medium. There is some ground to the criticism that games like Fallout and Planescape are sometimes like interactive novels, like a visual novel with more action. However, the sandbox style is a great example of mechanic that’s just as important for storytelling. Visual novels is merely steering a novel in a few possible direction. In Fallout and Planescape, you have much more freedom of what to include or exclude from your story. You even have the option of forgetting about the main story and be a boring, homicidal maniac. This freedom is useless unless, of course, we’re given interesting choices.

This is not an attack on the visual novel or text-based interactive fiction. Both are great formats that can tell good stories, but they don’t take advantage of the video game medium. They’re an extension of literature, more than anything. Fallout, Planescape: Torment, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Five Nights at Freddy’s are examples of games which take the advantage of the mechanics to tell a great story.

While the mechanics how the game tells its story, sometimes they go against it. I’ll explore in a later post when does a game mechanic exists for both storytelling and gameplay purposes, and when it exists solely for one of them. An example is how Bonnie in Five Nights at Freddy’s teleports. If you played the game, you can think about this and whether it exists solely to offer gameplay challenge or also to add to the story. I’ll write my views in a different post.

John Updike – Rabbit, Run

85386

Writers try to express their meaning not just by their choice of words, but the way they’re used. Raymond Carver wrote about the simple life using simple words and simple structure. Paul Auster’s fiction tends to contain multiple layers, so his sentences tend to drag on, too. As for John Updike, any sentence that is not longer than a line is useless. A few of these survived, but they’re endangered species in Rabbit, Run. It’s unclear why.

There is a pretty big paragraph which describes the planet in the garden Rabbit works in. It’s a horrible piece of writing. It’s literally a list of the plants and a brief descriptions of them. It’s not writing and it’s not typing. It’s lifting up straight from a Beginner’s Guide to Garden Plants. Updike could have at least put in the end the name of the guide he lifted the descriptions from. After wading through the forest that is Updike’s words, I wanted to have some idea of how these plants look like.

There’s no way Updike actually wrote that paragraph. Early on in the novel, Updike describes a basketball game with big sentences and big paragraphs. The shock that someone used all these words and didn’t stumble wears off quickly. It’s that good. It transmits the energy of a basketball game, and this game is an important character building moment. That’s a good reason to linger on it. What did that description of the garden helped? Why were the roofs of the houses were described over, and over, and over?

Updike tells me a simple story using complex language. He’s the antithesis of Raymond Carver, only writing about the same thing. Updike occasionally writes paragraph that are as good as Carver, but then he quickly falls again. This style of writing is just not suited to the subject matter and the themes. Worse, Updike hints that he says the same empathy and insight that makes Carver’s fiction so engrossing.

Updike wants to transmit the dullness of suburban life, but can dull life be described in such an explosive language? Maybe, and Updike sometimes reads like he can do it. Too often, he lingers on irrelevant details. It makes sense when he lingers on the women’s bodies, and even on the golf game even though it ended up being incomprehensible. He can even make a description of a chair important. The problem is, Updike is not selective in what he describes. He describes everything, both things that are irrelevant to the story and themes and things that are.

Descriptions are more than to tell us what the scene looks like. In fact, ‘what the scene looks like’ is not that important. Whether there’s a picture of Hemingway or Steinbeck in the room is irrelevant – until it tells us more than just that the picture is there. If the author tells me there’s a picture of Hemingway on the wall, it should be because he wants to tell me the character is obsessive over Hemingway, is literary, wants to be macho, or something like that. This is called being selective in what you describe. Updike doesn’t fail because he’s bad at describing, but because he’s not selective in what he describes. Even a talented guitarist would be boring somewhere in a sixty-minute jam session.

The story itself crumbles underneath this weight. Rabbit is an asshole, and that’s great. Updike is willing to explore a character that John Green would have turned into a one-dimensional antagonist. He makes Rabbit human and believable enough, but he forgot to show us what made him appealing to other people. It’s to easy to imagine how a once basketball star would be fun to have around, but there aren’t any examples of that. People say they love him a lot, but that’s it. There’s even an instance when one says they can’t describe why. Was that a moment of self awareness?

The asshole aspects of Rabbit are great. Updike knows how to make understand, if not necessarily agree with Rabbit’s actions. As immoral as he is, every action of his makes sense. He’s also not just an asshole. Bad people don’t want to be bad. They just have a different set of values. Rabbit is capable of being moral just as he is capable of being an asshole. Two great moments show these sides. One moment is where Updike nails what “guys entitled to sex” means. It’s a great portrait of the sexual insecurity of males. Another is a big plot moment where Rabbit’s character turns around. It’s easy to make this an out-of-character moment and make the plot go dumb like E-40. Since Updike is wise enough to portray Rabbit is a human first, this sudden burst of good just makes him more real.

Updike is just as good as portraying the other characters. Every character has its own values and worldviews. It’s most apparent when Rabbit visits his parents-in-law and then his own parents, but morose in two scenes. There is one section that centers on Eccles, and another on Janice. In these scenes, Updike follows them in an ordinary day, but by selectively describing some things he gets into these characters’ head. Eccles is interesting to lead his own novel. Janice is more vague, although her scene is more important. Still, he managed to make the ‘who’s guilty’ question of the novel a never-ending debate. He did it not by being too vague, but by creating real, flawed human beings which are the cause of such tragedies.

These great moments though tend to be buried under heaps of words. Rabbit, Run feels like a language exercise, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a simple story about simple people. Even if these simple people go through an epic quest, writing them in a simple language will give them more respect (As in Grapes of Wrath). It’s worth reading for its story and ideas, but it’s a short book that has about 70 extra pages. Updike probably just wanted to avoid writing a novella.

2 rabbits out of 5

John Green – An Abundance of Katherines

716JyDXf8KL

If it wasn’t for the few emotional moments, An Abundance of Katherines would have read like a parody of John Green. All the familiar ingridients are there, but Green uses them to explore different themes and ideas. It’s not a problem of repetition so long as Green is still good at his expressing his ideas, and has new ones in each book. Unfortunately, the only time Katherines is successful is when it stops to give us snippets from Green’s upcoming collection of essays.

Stopping a novel to deliver a teaser for an essay collection is bad writing. It shows the author couldn’t express his ideas using the story. In Katherines, these snippet highlight a different problem. Once you get over the fact you’re reading an essay, it’s pretty good. Green’s mediatations on being different and weird are well-written and interesting. He treats the subject with the seriousness it deserves. He sometimes slips into taking it too seriously, but most of the time he captures the confusion that weird kids feel and finds solutions that are not the way out. Once you get back to the novel, all of that depth is gone.

Calling An Abundance of Katherines a cartoon will compliment it. There are plenty of cartoons out there who will make their characters actually struggle. In Katherines, everything is solved nicely for the characters. There are worse things than getting dumped, but being a weird kid can’t be as great as Green makes it out to be. Blowing a problem out of porportion is just as bad as painting it much easier than it is.

Weird kids’ struggle with girls is a hilarious subject. These are people who are in this absurd catch-22 where there’s no way out, and the only solution is to give up on women. Weird kids are not special in the mysterious, sexually attractive way. Their quirks will just be overbearing, whether it’s an obsession with music or proving God doesn’t exist. They have slightly more content than your ‘popular dumb jock’, and it’s not enough to compensate for not being hot. Lack of social skills also means a lack of charisma and the ability to maintain a conversation. Add to that the fact males are generally expected to initiate, the ones who will ask out and the ones who will try to kiss first, and you’re left with people who have no hope of ever being in a relationship.

Colin doesn’t have to worry about that. Colin doesn’t have to agonize over how to approach a girl. Almost all of them ask him out, and there are 19 Katherines in this novel. For weird kids, actually getting rejected would be a step forward. It would mean they at least tried to approach. Getting dumped is Acheivement Unlocked. Even though Colin’s relationships tend to be as short as a pop song, he still had these moments. Girls still asked him out and kissed him out of their own initiative. From the point of view of the weird kids, this looks like a pretty nice life.

Green writes about weird people not to examine them, but to make himself feel better about being one. There is a reason why unpopular kids are unpopular, and the problem is not just the evil hot jocks. Colin and Hassan are both unpleasant creeps who act like they don’t really like each other and can’t relate to the world. They both think that by being quirky and weird, they’d somehow be able to get by and be loved. It’s a comforting message, but it’s a bad one.

There are moments in the novel where Green is aware of how terrible his main cast is, but the story disagrees with him. The characters undergo little change. They understand that perhaps they should try a little harder to relate to the world, but the message is still ‘be yourself’. Hassan and Colin don’t really confront their unplesant weirdness. Colin does some heroics and Hassan decides to be a little more active, but Colin wins the girl because of who he is, not how much he improved.

The worse comes when the jock reveals himself to be an exact stereotype. Green couldn’t try to look beyond his fantasy of getting the jock’s favorite girl. Lindsey’s boyfriend is actually nicknamed The Other Colin, and Green encourages us to view him as that. He’s the other, the different one who is not as cool like us, therefore he’s an asshole. Oh look, isn’t that how people describe nerds?

There are various other failings, but they’re expected when this is just a bad nerd empowerment fantasy. There’s a plot thread involving Lindsey’s mom that is dropped off after it’s hinted it might lead to the big climax. The quirks are much more forced, including Hassan and Colin inventing a code word for when they criticize each other too much (Dingleberries, if you can believe it). There are two characters who add nothing but their name to the word count. The romance is forced. Green should have kept this Theorem thingie for a humrous essay. The appendix at the end that explains it is actually pretty amusing. The punchline at the end is also great. It almost makes it worth it.

What made Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars good is that Green puts his young protagonists through a struggle and watched them cope with it. They weren’t wish-fulfillment fantasies (Well, Alaska is, bit). In Abundance of Katherines, the characters have no struggle and no serious conflict. They just win, like DJ Khaled. Everything is wrapped tight at the end as if the tragedy never occurred, while in the aforementioned novels the characters have to go on and live with it. The only explaination for the novel’s birth is that the publishers were impatient after the success of Alaska. This is a wish-fulfillment fantasy Green wrote for his own amusement spliced with teasers for his essay collection. There’s no way the former was meant to be published.

2 Katherines out of 5

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assasssin

2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assasin

Of all the Margaret Atwood novels, The Blind Assassin is the one that wants the hardest to be the best. It won’t be content with being better than its brothers. It aims for the Classic List. It wants to sit alongside Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath and various others you think are overrated. It succeded at making people think that way, and the novel was pretty convincing for the most part that it deserved it. The approach had more style over substance, but there were 600 pages to through. It could take its time revealing its depth.

Only when it had the chance to be truly as complex as its structure, it fell. It fell where you’d least expect Atwood to fail. She’s excellent at portraying the female experience, especially under the gaze and control of men. She treats the subject with the respect and depth it deserves, recognizing the bad guys are human, as bad as they are (Life Before Man) and that girls can be just as cruel to girls (Cat’s Eye). In The Blind Assassin, there are two patriarchs, one of which is excused because he is supposed to have some nice political ideas. The truth is, he’s excused because he’s far more sexually attractive. Atwood should be the last person to give ammunition to guys who go on and on about how women like jerks.

Alex Thomas could be a fantastic character. He’s full of good intentions, and it’s great that he’s willing to make sacrifices for what he believes it. It doesn’t change the fact that his behavior with Iris – a far more interesting character than the crazy Laura – reeks of future wifebeating. The first intimate scene between them reads like an account of near-rape experience. Iris narrates as if she avoided a car crash. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’d want go through again. There’s also a narrative device that details the relationship between the two, and Alex always comes off like a manipulator. He has mood swings, he’s idealist one second, and nihilist the next. His confusing behavior is what Pick-Up Artists recommend in order to get the emotions going in women and therefore, manipulate them.

This could have been a fantastic portaryal of a Dangerous Guy, and how sometimes it’s very hard to detect their manipulation. When the big moment arrived, though, it turned out the subtleness wasn’t a part of the theme. If Alex is not terrible for women, why are all these hints there? Maybe this is what Atwood likes in a man, but her control on the novel is too tight to let such things slip in. If Atwood hadn’t failed, it could have excused the rest of the failures.

The Blind Assassin is worse at portraying its antagonists than Life Before Man. This is weird, considering Life Before Man is the product of a younger author that can’t even try to hide its youth. The Blind Assassin, while more mature in every other aspect somehow ends up with antagonists that always border on caricature. Winifred suffers the most from this. Her character is the least believable thing here. She has no redeemable features, and there’s never a glimpse into her struggles. Richard, the main antagonist, fares better. Excluding the reveal at the end that drags his character down, he manages to be both a pretty awful person but also real. Richard also has no good traits, but he’s a living person with his own wants and needs, his own ambitions and objectives. Unlike Winifred, Richard could lead a novel, although not as long as this. 600 pages with a person like him is too much.

Maybe it’s a deliberate attempt at non-complex antagonists because fiction is the novel’s main theme. There are stories within stories, but anyone who read Auster is not going to be confused by its structure. The novel is not concerned with just written fiction but any kind of fiction. Stories are biographies, things we write for others, novels, the news and rumours. Atwood goes beyond the self-indulgent, “novelist’s relationship with his work” that authors succumb to after sitting in a dark room for too much time with too many books. Atwood examines the relationship between fiction and any kind of person, but what wants to say about it is unclear.

The most obvious guess is fiction is deceptive, but if you don’t elaborate this statement it’s too simplistic. In a way, everything is fiction. Human interaction is based on telling stories, even if it’s just “I found a way to discover fire”. If fiction, in general is deceptive, then there’s a huge hole in all of human interaction. You can’t talk about this without also involving the theme of how humans interact, and Atwood doesn’t touch on that. Like in the Alex Thomas case, we’re left with too many hints that the complex structure is not just there for complexity’s sake, but it never leads to something resembling a conclusion.

Beneath the messy themes, there’s a nice story. The complex structure may fail to bring any meaning, but it doesn’t drag the story down. All the stories in the novel are interesting enough. Atwood is still a fantastic writer, despite sometimes describing too much. There are various great sentences and quotables scattered all over the book, and tiny stories that touch on various themes. Maybe that’s what impressed so many people. The scope of The Blind Assassin means that it touches more themes than mentioned previously, too many to count here. This scope makes it entertaining, but it’s not enough to make it great, and therefore it falls below Cat’s Eye, Life Before Man and Oryx and Crake.

GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords

GZALiquidSwords

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