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GZA/Genius, Beneath the Surface (MCA)

by Dave Heaton

The Wu-Tang Clan's music at its best (which is, for me, on Wu-Tang Forever) has a really mysterious quality to every aspect of it. MCs come and go almost anonymously, without making that personality stamp so common in hip-hop, leaving only the collective brand of the Wu. The lyrics they spit are a type of freeform, abstract poetry, where contradictory messages coexist freely and linear patterns of thought are eschewed, replaced by the type of constant stream of weird images and thoughts that is either the mark of genius or of utter, childish nonsense (and what is the difference?). All of this is backed by musical tracks that are both sparse and sonically full; they can be broken down to a few elements (usually beats, piano, some string hooks, maybe some kung-fu samples), but completely immerse you and soak you in sound. For me the big leap from Enter the Wu to Wu-Tang Forever was the perfection of this style, the movement towards more sound and towards greater abstraction. And, the problem with a lot of the solo albums is that the MCs try so hard to maintain their uniqueness that they run out of steam partway through and become at least a little bit tired. Of those, the solo albums that succeed the most usually take an entirely different tactic than the Wu-Tang releases, both musically and lyrically.

GZA/Genius' two albums since joining the Wu (he had one pre-Wu album), Liquid Swords and Beneath the Surface, come closest of the Wu solo albums to embodying the magic that is the Wu-Tang Clan. They both have the lyrical poetry, enough guest MCs to maintain the sense of collectivity and the creative music (which, to be fair, very few of the Wu albums lack, thanks mostly to RZA) to keep the Wu mystique up. Though critically and commercially it's been considered a disappointment, I think the 1999 release Beneath the Surface is both a big improvement on the earlier GZA album and perhaps my favorite Wu release yet. On this album, what GZA does is take the Wu formula and streamline it. This is a quick album (not a trait usually associated with Wu albums) which hits hard. It has no filler, few unnecesary "skits" or messing around (nothing like that preposterously long spoken ending to Wu-Tang Forever). In general, it's a hard-hitting album filled with songs that completely fit what I want to get out of a Wu-Tang album.

The music is slamming, nothing else to say. I have absolutely no comprehension of why this album's music has been described as inferior, warmed-over Wu Tang music. The album's filled with tight beats and interesting hooks. It definitely fits the formula, lots of one-note piano bits and strings, but the unnecessary aspects have been cut; no kung-fu clips, no mediocre R&B vocals. The interesting thing is that the RZA, Wu producer extraordinarre, produced only one track ("1112"), and it's not even the best one. The album gives that impression that RZA's "disciples" (Mathematics, Arabian Knight, Inspectah Deck) are not only learning from him but excelling (compare these beats to the lame Bobby Digital album and you'd think RZA's really falling off, thought the music he did for Ghost Dog definitely suggests differently).

The producers have kept these tracks really minimal, adding to the almost meditative quality delivered by the rhymes. GZA has some purely Wu, really weird rhymes throughout the album. For example, from the title track: "Swarming unpredictably, we spread terror/ increase the fog significantly, change the error/ check my wind pattern, it's heading west/ success is freedom, failure can mean death." And he's accompanied throughout the album by a ton of MCs (either from the Wu itself or the many offshoots and Wu-friendly groups), including Killah Priest, RES, Masta Killa, Hell Raizah, LA the Darkman, Royal Fam, and Method Man (whose career's taken off in a whole different direction with Blackout, his great, rowdy collaboration with Redman). There are two tracks that the Genius himself doesn't even appear on! That fact is easy to complain about, but here it makes sense, because the atmosphere is abstract Wu poetry over hardcore Wu beats; it barely matters who's rapping when, as long as their rhymes are hot and Wu-ish.

Overall, Beneath the Surface is an album that has been majorly overlooked. Lately critics are all too ready to dismiss the Wu-Tang Clan as all washed up; this album is stark evidence to the contrary.

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