Beneath The Surface

If genius is pain, then Gary 'GZA' Grice[/B] must have had an exceptionally hard time over the past four years. Not only does he...

If genius is pain, then Gary 'GZA' Grice must have had an exceptionally hard time over the past four years. Not only does he labour under that grandiloquent pseudonym, but the Wu-Tang Clan elder statesman's 1995 album 'Liquid Swords' was broadly seen as the seventh wonder of Wu-Land, giving the most complete solo encapsulation of the Clan's Bristol-meets-the-Bronx style of strings and mythologised beats.

Clutching his post-Shaolin Monk Arthurian Excalibur sword like Professor Griff gone all Kula Shaker, the GZA frowns from his publicity photos and promises in the opening 'Intro' to lead us beneath New York City into the bowels of learned but mysticism-soaked Afrocentric neo-reality. The mood is as ominous as a Morgan Freeman voiceover, the beats are stately and for a while all is eerily well.

GZA doesn't have the trashed delivery of your Method Mans and Ol' Dirtys but as the man who taught The RZA to rap, he makes up for it with his ingenuity, expertly collaging images of mind expansion in the ghetto - less martial arts and more social sciences this time - around the basic loops'n'splices. 'Amplified Sample' is a fine Digi-Age poem and equally professorial is the drop-dead soulful title track with its hooky female refrain and inspired survival-in-the-city wordplay.

Quality control is maintained through the rough loop and distorted horns of 'Crash Your Crew' where Ol' Dirty Bastard makes a welcome yet raving guest appearance. But with the throwaway strings'n'beats and doggerel rap on 'Breaker Breaker' the first signs emerge of a tendency to rest on the formula. Faux-naive synthesisers and lo-fi loops were radical a while back, but more is now required for GZA and producer The RZA to keep their Arthurian hip-hopper seats.

For all its spaced imagery of Egyptian queens and satellites over Nevada, '1112' is only treading water, as is the industry insider rant 'Publicity' which stoops to listing American music magazines. Focus is not much helped by inter-track 'skits' satirising music industry greedheads or publicising child gun deaths and although the slippery-tongued one hits a fine party groove on the Method Man-propelled 'Stringplay' there's a lot of average Wu-centricity and industry litter in GZA's mental maze.

The greatness of the man lies in his ability to bring dignity to sorrowful street struggle. Though he does this brilliantly on true crime tale 'High Price' and the soul elegy 'Victim', the return of the Staten Island swordsman is just a few brave lunges short of super heroic.
6 / 10

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