“He the head. Let’s put it that way. We form like Voltron and GZA happen to be the head.”
—Method Man explaining the Wu on Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
GZA’s place in hip-hop history is interesting. He is, unquestionably, one of the greatest rap lyricists ever. It’s practically impossible to imagine Wu-Tang without tracks like “Clan in the Front”, or albums like Liquid Swords. His repertoire is challenged only by Ghostface Killah’s atop the pantheon of Wu-Tang solo careers. Especially during the apex of his crew’s incalculable impact on popular music, just as Method Man explained in the above quote, GZA was the true emceeing leader of the Wu—the master who was completely in control of his craft, leading a clan of swordsmen who possessed heaps of raw talent, yet were still honing their skills. Despite these qualities, GZA has had a hard time transcending his association with Wu-Tang to become recognized as a truly powerful solo entity in the consciousness of popular culture.
While an emcee like Ghostface has undergone a transformation (from initial recognition as a relatively minor Wu clansman to that of a classic artist through continual self-reinventions along a series of incredible solo albums) GZA had the misfortune of already peaking at the onset of the Wu-Tang Clan. While he has undoubtedly remained the most consistently great Wu emcee over time, whose contributions to the Clan’s legacy have always lived up to high expectations, the initial joy of discovering the skills of the Genius faded somewhat for fans after Liquid Swords. This is due to the fact that GZA always was, and still remains, Wu-Tang’s no-frills, technical master, a pure lyricist who places skillful craft above every other aspect of emceeing. His solo records have consistently been a reflection of that emphasis. His new album, Pro Tools, for better or for worse, is no different.
The primary criticisms lodged against GZA’s post-Liquid Swords solo output were directed toward production. Such complaints, to be quite honest, had more to do with hurt feelings over a lack of RZA beats, than with the presence of actual, bad sounds. Now that fans have been conditioned into accepting even a single RZA track on a Wu solo album as a gift, assessment of production on post-millennial Wu projects has been significantly more gracious than it was during the late ‘90s. RZA disciples like Mathematics, True Master, Bronze Nazareth, and Arabian Knight (whose beats arguably sound more like classic-era RZA than those of circa-2008 RZA) provide the bulk of production on Pro Tools. There are also two actual RZA tracks (“Paper Plate” and “Life is a Movie”), a beat from J Dilla descendant Black Milk (“7 Pounds”), and a few others from relatively low-profile producers. While it would be a stretch call any of the beats on this project revolutionary, it would be just as hard to call any of them bad. The production of Pro Tools succeeds in its most important task by creating relatively simple yet distinctively Wu soundscapes for GZA to showcase his skills. That’s about as much as anyone should expect production-wise from a GZA solo album.
Lyrically, the GZA of Pro Tools is just as impressive as the GZA of Liquid Swords which is an incredible feat considering his age (42) as well as the fact that Swords is quite possibly the greatest lyrical album in hip-hop history. Whether rhyming in incredibly detailed narratives, or taking veiled metaphorical shots at those he views as disposable artists (50 Cent on “Paper Plates”), any one of GZA’s verses here sounds like it could have come, just as easily, from 1993. What the emceeing on Pro Tools lacks is the presence of consistently captivating guest verses to compliment and add contrast to GZA’s potent style—one of the key factors in the brilliance of Liquid Swords, which boasted numerous contributions from every original Wu member. A “Shadowboxing”-esque back-and-forth track with Method Man could have made any Wu-fan’s day, but considering the ostensible rifts in Wu unity as of late, such absences can be excused. They still, however, represent Pro Tools’ largest flaw.
For those who listen to hip-hop for great lyrics, GZA is still as good as it gets. Seeing him perform at such a high level after so many years is very encouraging. Fans should continue to hope for the type of Wu-Tang reconciliation that could have made this album a true classic, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be thankful for the type of quality project Pro Tools is. Those who continue to lament some apparent demise of the Wu-Tang Clan obviously haven’t been paying attention to GZA’s solo career since 1995. If anything, Pro Tools is further proof that those people need to wake up.