I labeled GZA the Wu-Tang Clan’s "poet laureate" in my essay on his classic debut album Liquid Swords (which he'll be performing tonight in its entirety at Neumo's). But, after listening to his newest release, Pro Tools, I’m more inclined to call him “the professor.” This is not because he has positioned himself to teach lessons on his sixth solo disc (though he does school 50 Cent on the dis track “Paper Plate” and provide deep background on juvenile delinquency on “Path of Destruction”), or because he’s the oldest Clansmen. Rather, it’s because, like the best professors—the ones whom we remember for years to come—GZA helps us think better.
He re-directs our brainwaves on Pro Tools (released Aug. 19 via Babygrande) by crafting earthquake-proof rhyme structures, steel hulks whose ornate décor distracts from their essential solidity. In short: the aesthetics mask the utility, as well they should. That said, for the record, I don’t think Pro Tools is a return to form a la Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale. After all, GZA doesn’t have the hipster cache of Ghost’s outsized personality and an energized, almost gaudy delivery to match it, which means tastemakers aren’t going to pounce all over Pro Tools like a sale at American Apparel. Rather, GZA is, as ever, subdued to the point of quiet—a whisper in the ear. And that just doesn’t make a good story.The third cut and first single, “Alphabets,” is instructive in this regard. True Master (one of a platoon of producers featured here, which also includes Bronze Nazareth, Rock Marcy and, yes, RZA) provides a simple, airy beat, an appropriate backdrop and complement to GZA’s careful conversation. In fact, GZA celebrates his producer’s discipline with the first lines: “All I need is a beat with a continuous loop/And a live vibe that’ll hypnotize like the flute.” It’s a bell-clear declaration of artistic intention and as pedagogical an utterance as you’re likely to find on a contemporary hip-hop album.
I suspect that it’s this tendency in GZA to carefully handle his words like some talisman of infinite proportion smoothed down to size, that lead him to mock 50 Cent. Fitty is, after all, a spectacularly clumsy MC both in terms of lyrics and delivery—a true hack who mumbles nonsense because that’s what pays. Unfortunately for him, that’s not what counts—and GZA knows it. After noting of the G-Unit over RZA’s brooding beat that “I’ll spray the Flea Unit with pesticides,” GZA announces: “All this rap crap that’s trapped in your colon/Only means get rid of the whack shit you’re holding.” Which pretty much summarizes the thinking man’s view of the fecal matter that is Fitty.
While there are a number of superb cuts here, including "O% Finance," a playful yet serious attack on conspicuous consumption, the standout track is “Life is a Movie,” a tricky song that immediately snatches you by the collar because of its sly qualities. It ain’t boring. Irfane Khan-Actio and RZA—who also produced—guest with GZA, taking turns riding the merry-go-round of prophetic drums, thick bass, and slippery synths, and clearly having a damn good time doing it. Even RZA, who often finds difficulty in determining what to say, fires off a heater: “I got scientist killers that’ll jam your cell phone/Send a text message kill you off with a ring tone.”
GZA follows with an astringent flow that, in less than 10 lines, communicates the experience of poverty: “The mailman’s late with the check/I’m the in flood with a bunch of bills that’s about up to my neck/Plus my rent’s not paid and the lights about to go off/Car got stolen by a thief who like to show off/I can’t even get a job handing out flyers/I’m a handy-man with a pair of broke pliers/The fridge is bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard/I’m so down and out I can only go upward.”
The beauty of that verse is that it looks destitution in the eye and doesn’t blink by veering into maudlin sentiment. In that way, it’s a good indicator of GZA’s style. Through discipline and training, he has learned how to edit himself—to find the essentiality of a given line or rhyme or both. Pro Tools may not speak to the trendsters, but it doesn’t have to—it speaks for itself.