Sunday, February 25, 2007

Keith Murray

A native of Long Island, Keith Murray first hooked up with Erick Sermon (of EPMD) in 1994. The two worked together to produce Murray's debut single, "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World," and the song became a hit by the end of the year. After an appearance on Sermon's album, Double or Nothing, Keith Murray released his first album in 1995, and titled it after his hit single. The album was certified gold, and Murray delivered his second set near the end of 1996. It's a Beautiful Thing followed in 1999.Before Keith Murray ever recorded an album, he battled Big Daddy Kane, a man widely considered to be one of the greatest MCs of all time. At that time, Murray went by the name of MC Do Damage. Murray did not win the battle, but he did earn the respect of Kane. Later, Murray would be introduced to Erick Sermon of EPMD by K-Solo. Sermon would feature Murray on his album No Pressure. Murray quickly established himself as one of the most creative lyricists in the industry with his first album The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World, released in 1994 on Jive Records. The title track from this album remains Murray's biggest solo hit. This album was given 4 mics by The Source.Murray's second album Enigma was released in 1996 on Jive. It received similar ratings from critics, but it was not quite as commercially successful as the previous album. In 1998, The Def Squad covered "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. They would later release their own album, El Nino. Murray's third album It's a Beautiful Thing was released in 1999 while he was in prison. Like the previous album, it received relatively good reviews, but it showed yet another drop in sales. Murray also appeared on the song "Home Alone" by R. Kelly. In 2001, Murray's return to the music industry was announced with a memorable verse on "Fatty Girl." This song was featured on The Good Life, a compilation of songs for Fubu.

Keith Murray - The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World (Nov 8, 1994: Jive)
Before he managed to get himself locked up for a brief bid later in the decade on an assault charge, Keith Murray was assaulting microphones and thesauruses alike with his ill "Sychosymatic" lyrical skills. Introduced to the rap world at the end of 1993 via a guest spot on the song "Hostile" off Erick Sermon's first solo album Double or Nothing, Murray stepped out on his own at the beginning of the next year with the mellow Sermon-produced hit single "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World," then backed it up with a full-length debut by the same title. There is nothing new in Sermon's loping music that you couldn't get on EPMD albums or from other recordings by members of the Def Squad, although he did continue to bring the funk hot and viscous as always. The main attraction on The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World, then, is Murray's raw, emotionally charged flow and droll (though not as funny as Redman), articulate rhymes, straight out of the battle-rap school of hip-hop. His lyrics, in other words, are often tasty going down (particularly on "How's That" with Sermon and Redman and "Bom Bom Zee" with Paul Hightower and Hurricane Gee) but won't necessarily stick around to quell any sort of hunger. Still, the album went gold and is easily recommended for fans of Double or Nothing or Whut? Thee Album.

Keith Murray - Enigma (Nov 26, 1996: Jive)
With his second album Enigma, Keith Murray continues to improve his rhythmic skills, as demonstrated by the deft lyrical gymnastics he performs throughout the record. Murray's style of production is defiantly East Coast with its spare rhythms and emphasis on lyrical rhymes. This can make the record a little monotonous to some listeners, but his kinetic verbal energy keeps Enigma exciting and fresh.

Keith Murray - It's a Beautiful Thing (Jan 12, 1999: Jive) Keith Murray may have a distinctive rapping style, but that doesn't necessarily make for distinctive albums if his third album, It's a Beautiful Thing, is any indication. It's no coincidence that the title recalls Murray's high-water mark, "The Most Beautifullest Thing in the World" — the entire album is a self-conscious attempt to return to those glory days, which is ironic because he's never really changed his style over the years. Still, name-association means a lot, and that may be the reason why there do seem to be several highlights on It's a Beautiful Thing, since there are no real musical or lyrical breakthroughs anywhere on the album. Indeed, it's by-the-books Murray, which will undoubtedly satisfy some long-term fans, who only need new songs to keep their interest. The rest of the audience will find the album to be a bit uneven, despite his obvious flair for lyrical gymnastics (or maybe because of them, since many of his rhymes don't make sense, even in the absurdist sense) — the sounds aren't really new and only a handful of songs catch hold. There's enough to make It's a Beautiful Thing a reasonably entertaining listen, even if they aren't enough to make it memorable.

Keith Murray - He's Keith Murray (Apr 29, 2003: Def Jam)
After his gloriously fluky solo debut, "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World," scaled the charts in 1994, Keith Murray's career went into a tailspin he still hadn't recovered from ten years later. His 1996 album Enigma sounded flat and sold poorly, and he began serving a prison term for second-degree assault just as 1999's It's a Beautiful Thing reached the stores. Three years later, after being released and signing to Def Jam in 2002, Murray was dropped from the label before He's Keith Murray even arrived, on charges that he'd choked two Def Jam employees. It did appear, finally, leaving fans of his eccentric take on East Coast rap just a little disappointed, especially so considering the long wait. Murray partially explains his situation with the autobiographical "Christina," relating not only his legal troubles but the early death of his parents and sister; unfortunately, the track isn't much more than a straight retelling, with little emotion and no context. The biggest hit here, "Yeah Yeah U Know It," is a solid party jam, but quite a few other crossover items fall flat: "Candi Bar" is a Latin pop throwaway that wastes Patti Austin as a backing vocalist (granted, it's partly saved by Murray's typically hilarious rhymes). Ironically, anyone who sticks with the record on the flip side will find a much better half, featuring a pair of tight, menacing Erick Sermon tracks ("Sucka Free," "Say Goodnite") and a Jazze Pha production on "Say Whaatt" that floats the perfect accompaniment to Murray's soundclash with Redman. Though his recordings have offered much to hip-hop fans tired of hearing the same old jams, Murray remains his own worst enemy — both at letting his temper off the mike get the best of him, and at allowing crossovers to force aside his best tracks.

Keith Murray - Kickin Ass Mixtape Vol.1

Enjoy & keep voting with new poll...As Salaam Aleikum

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Roots

Though popular success has largely eluded the Roots, the Philadelphia group showed the way for live rap, building on Stetsasonic's "hip-hop band" philosophy of the mid-'80s by focusing on live instrumentation at their concerts and in the studio. Though their album works have been inconsistent affairs, more intent on building grooves than pushing songs, the Roots' live shows are among the best in the business.The Roots' focus on live music began back in 1987 when rapper Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and drummer ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) became friends at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts. Playing around school, on the sidewalk, and later at talent shows (with ?uestlove's drum kit backing Black Thought's rhymes), the pair began to earn money and hooked up with bassist Hub (Leon Hubbard) and rapper Malik B. Moving from the street to local clubs, the Roots became a highly tipped underground act around Philadelphia and New York. When they were invited to represent stateside hip-hop at a concert in Germany, the Roots recorded an album to sell at shows; the result, Organix, was released in 1993 on Remedy Records. With a music industry buzz surrounding their activities, the Roots entertained offers from several labels before signing with DGC that same year.The Roots' first major-label album, Do You Want More?!!!??!, was released in January 1995; forsaking usual hip-hop protocol, the album was produced without any samples or previously recorded material. It peaked just outside the Top 100, but was mostly ignored by fans of hip-hop. Instead, Do You Want More?!!!??! made more tracks in alternative circles, partly due to the Roots playing the second stage at Lollapalooza that summer. The band also journeyed to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Two of the guests on the album who had toured around with the band, human beatbox Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze — previously a performer with Grandmaster Flash and LL Cool J — and Scott Storch (later Kamal), became permanent members of the group.Early in 1996, the Roots released Clones, the trailer single for their second album. It hit the rap Top Five, and created a good buzz for the album. The following September, Illadelph Halflife appeared and made number 21 on the album charts. Much like its predecessor, though, the Roots' second LP was a difficult listen. It made several very small concessions to mainstream rap — the bandmembers sampled material that they had recorded earlier at jam sessions — but failed to make a hit of their unique sound. The Roots' third album, 1999's Things Fall Apart, was easily their biggest critical and commercial success; The Roots Come Alive followed later that year. The long-awaited Phrenology was released in late November 2002 amid rumors of the Roots losing interest in their label arrangements with MCA. In 2004, the band remedied the situation by creating the Okayplayer company. Named after their website, Okayplayer included a record label and a production/promotion company. The same year, the band held a series of jam sessions to give their next album a looser feel. The results were edited down to ten tracks and released as The Tipping Point in July of 2004. A 2004 concert from Manhattan's Webster Hall with special guests like Mobb Deep, Young Gunz, and Jean Grae was released in early 2005 as The Roots Present in both CD and DVD formats. Two volumes of the rarities-collecting Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots appeared at the end of the year. Game Theory, the group's first album for Def Jam, followed in 2006.

The Roots - Organix (May 19, 1993: Remedy)
The Roots' low-profile debut set out many of the themes they would employ over the course of their successful career. An intro, "The Roots Is Comin'," is barely over a minute long, yet long enough to exemplify the band's funky bassline (here played by Leonard Hubbard), their dreamy and emotional organ chords (thanks to Scott Storch), and their ferociously swift yet clear rhymes from the group's focal MC Black Thought. The song that follows, "Pass the Popcorn" would have been called a "posse cut" in 1993. Everyone could've used a little more practice before stepping up to the mic on this song, but the spirit of the song are not lost in the amateurishness. The creative venture "Writers Block" is an example of just the opposite, as Black Thought flows with spoken word, comically and creatively expressing the experience of a day in the life of a Philadelphian using mass transit. The instrumentation is appropriately frantic and punctuated by [cymbal] crashes (like any mass transit system). Fans of Do You Want More, the Roots album released immediately following Organix, will recognize the music of "I'm Out Deah," "Leonard I-V," and "Essawhamah?" Another track to note is "The Session (Longest Posse Cut in History)," — no false claim at 12 minutes and 43 seconds. This album should be a part of any Roots fan's collection — not so much because it is an example of their artistry at its best, but because it allows you to see where they came from and how fruitful of a journey it's been.

The Roots - Do You Want More?!!!??! (Jan 17, 1995: Universal/MCA)
Because the Roots were pioneering a new style during the early '90s, the band was forced to draw its own blueprints for its major-label debut album. It's not surprising then, that Do You Want More?!!!??! sounds more like a document of old-school hip-hop than contemporary rap. The album is based on loose grooves and laid-back improvisation, and where most hip-hoppers use samples to draw songs together and provide a chorus, the Roots just keep on jamming. The problem is that the Roots' jams begin to take the place of true songs, leaving most tracks with only that groove to speak for them. The notable exceptions — "Mellow My Man" and "Datskat," among others — use different strategies to command attention: the sounds of a human beatbox , the great keyboard work of Scott Storch, and contributions from several jazz players (trombonist Joshua Roseman, saxophonist Steve Coleman and vocalist Cassandra Wilson). By the close of the album, those tracks are what the listener remembers, not the lightweight grooves.

The Roots - Illadelph Halflife (Sep 24, 1996: DGC)
For the Roots' second major-label album, the band apparently recognized the weaknesses of the debut, since there are several songs which provide more structure than previous jam-session efforts — two even became R&B radio hits. But for all its successes, Illadelph Halflife mostly repeats the long-winded jams and loose improvisatory feel that characterized Do You Want More?!!!??!. And while these songs may sound great live (a field where the Roots excel over any other rap act), in a living-room setting listeners need hooks on which to focus.

The Roots - Things Fall Apart (Feb 23, 1999: MCA)
One of the cornerstone albums of alternative rap's second wave, Things Fall Apart was the point where the Roots' tremendous potential finally coalesced into a structured album that maintained its focus from top to bottom. If the group sacrifices a little of the unpredictability of its jam sessions, the resulting consistency more than makes up for it, since the record flows from track to track so effortlessly. Taking its title from the Chinua Achebe novel credited with revitalizing African fiction, Things Fall Apart announces its ambition right upfront, and reinforces it in the opening sound collage. Dialogue sampled from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues implies a comparison to abstract modern jazz that lost its audience, and there's another quote about hip-hop records being treated as disposable, that they aren't maximized as product or as art. That's the framework in which the album operates, and while there's a definite unity counteracting the second observation, the artistic ambition actually helped gain the Roots a whole new audience ("coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common puts it in the liner notes). The backing tracks are jazzy and reflective, filled with subtly unpredictable instrumental lines, and the band also shows a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement, which they actually had a hand in kick-starting via their supporting work on Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Badu returns the favor by guesting on the album's breakthrough single, "You Got Me," an involved love story that also features a rap from Eve, co-writing from Jill Scott, and an unexpected drum'n'bass breakbeat in the outro. Other notables include Mos Def on the playful old-school rhymefest "Double Trouble," Slum Village superproducer Jay Dee on "Dynamite!," and Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff on "The Next Movement." But the real stars are Black Thought and Malik B, who drop such consistently nimble rhymes throughout the record that picking highlights is extremely difficult. Along with works by Lauryn Hill, Common, and Black Star, Things Fall Apart is essential listening for anyone interested in the new breed of mainstream conscious rap.

The Roots - The Roots Come Alive (Nov 2, 1999: MCA)
Releasing an album recorded live in concert makes more sense for the Roots than any other hip-hop artist, considering they've always concentrated on live prowess over their skills on the mic or in the production booth. The standard guitar/drums/bass/keyboards lineup of most rock bands is a reality for this group, and after years of requests from rabid fans, the Roots acquiesced with a document of their live experience, titled The Roots Come Alive. Recorded at two venues in New York and one in Paris, the album distills exactly what the Roots bring to the hip-hop world — a live experience built on call-and-response vocals that bring the show to the audience like few other artists. The sound is fantastic, especially on early keyboard-driven tracks like "Proceed," "Essaywhuman?!???!!!," and "Mellow My Man." Though the raps themselves often suffer from the live setting, the rhythms are crisper than in the studio, and the bass-driven grooves are much beefier. The Roots' resident turntablist, Scratch, takes a large role as well, as does human beatbox Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze (though the latter only appears on about half of the album). This is a live album that not only satisfies fans, but offers neophytes more entertainment than any of the Roots' studio efforts. It's difficult to make any live album a first pick, but Come Alive displays the group doing exactly what it does best.

The Roots - Phrenology (Nov 26, 2002: MCA)
The easy-flowing Things Fall Apart made the Roots one of the most popular artists of alternative rap's second wave. Anticipated nearly as much as it was delayed, the proper studio follow-up, Phrenology, finally appeared in late 2002, after much perfectionist tinkering by the band — so much that the liner notes include recording dates (covering a span of two years) and, sometimes, histories for the individual tracks. Coffeehouse music programmers beware: Phrenology is not Things Fall Apart redux; it's a challenging, hugely ambitious opus that's by turns brilliant and bewildering, as it strains to push the very sound of hip-hop into the future. Despite a few gentler tracks (like the Nelly Furtado and Jill Scott guest spots), Phrenology is the hardest-hitting Roots album to date, partly because it's their most successful attempt to re-create their concert punch in the studio. ?uestlove's drums positively boom out of the speakers on the Talib Kweli duet "Rolling With Heat"; the fantastic, lean guitar groover "The Seed (2.0)" (with neo-soul auteur Cody ChesnuTT); and the opening section of "Water." The ten-minute "Water" is the album's centerpiece, a powerful look at former Roots MC Malik B.'s drug problems that morphs into a downright avant-garde sound collage. Similarly, lead single "Break You Off," a neo-soul duet with Musiq, winds up in a melange of drum'n'bass programming and live strings. If moves like those, or the speed-blur Bad Brains punk of "!!!!!!!," or the drum'n'bass backdrop of poet Amiri Baraka's "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" can seem self-consciously eclectic, it's also true that Phrenology is one of those albums where the indulgences and far-out experiments make it that much more fascinating, whether they work or not. Plus, slamming grooves like "Rock You," "Thought @ Work," and the aforementioned "The Seed (2.0)" keep things exciting and vital. If this really is the future of hip-hop, then the sky is the limit. [The two hidden bonus tracks are "Rhymes and Ammo," the Talib Kweli collaboration that appeared on Soundbombing, Vol. 3, and "Something to See," another techno-inflected jam.]

The Roots - The Tipping Point (Jul 13, 2004: Geffen)
The delivery of any new Roots album is rarely talked or written about without the words "highly" and "anticipated," and The Tipping Point is no exception. Besides the usual expectation for the band's superior lyrical skills and attention to detail, there's the previously announced concept that The Tipping Point would be recorded through free-spirited jams that would later be edited down. Sounds like a don't-care-about-the-final-package, music-for-music's-sake release, but the album is a well-constructed ride from start to finish that's perfect for a headphones-on, lights-out evening and a gift to fans who found 2002's Phrenology a bit mannered and forced. To paraphrase the album's "Pointro," the tracks here are mostly warm and organic "life music" that "thrusts its branches from the muck of wackness" without any overly calculated "hypnotic donkey rhythms." The ghost of Sly & the Family Stone is summoned for the opening "Star," an exuberant soul rocker that creeps along with a Timbaland-style beat, only it's live. On the other hand, there's the perfect for popping, locking, and robot-dancing "Don't Say Nuthin'" with its solid electro and Black Thought's quirky mumbled verse. The shifting from the sticky, stately reggae of "Guns Are Drawn" to the Cohiba-puffing swagger of "Stay Cool" is just one example of how the album overcomes its noncommitment to any particular groove by giving the listener nothing but fully formed, inspired tracks. The band's renewed love of head-bobbing jams also helps keep it together although the album's long stretches of rap-less jamming might alienate those just here for the message. For them there's the lyric-filled "Boom!," which may not be enough. Take off your academic backpack for a change and bask in an album that's comfortably loose and ends with an over-the-top, celebratory cover of George Kranz's "Din Daa Daa" that's unnecessary but extra fun. The Tipping Point is too modest to be the "idea that spreads like a virus" that's explored in the Malcolm Gladwell book the collection cops it title from. What the album lacks in ambition and social commentary, it makes up for with deep soul. That should be enough to make whatever this group does next "highly anticipated."

The Roots - Game Theory (Aug 29, 2006: Def Jam)
Game Theory is the Roots' equivalent of a Funkadelic playlist containing "Wars of Armageddon," "Cosmic Slop," "Maggot Brain," "March to the Witch's Castle," and "America Eats Its Young." It's a vivid reflector of the times, not an escape hatch (of which there are several readily available options). Spinning turbulence, paranoia, anger, and pain into some of the most exhilarating and startling music released in 2006, the group is audibly galvanized by the world's neverending tailspin and a sympathetic alignment with Def Jam. Batting around stray ideas and squeezing them into shape was clearly not part of the plan, and neither was getting on the radio. The songs flow into and out of one another to optimal effect, with an impossibly stern sense of peak-of-powers focus, as if the group and its collaborators instantly locked into place and simply knocked the thing out. With the exception of the elbow-throwing "Here I Come," nothing here is suitable for any kind of carefree activity. The extent of the album's caustic nature is tipped off early on, after glancing at the hangman on the cover and hearing Wadud Ahmad's penetrating voice run through lines like "Pilgrims, slaves, Indians, Mexicans/It looks real f*cked up for your next of kin." The point at which the album kicks into full gear, just a couple minutes later, arrives when tumbling bass drums and a Sly & the Family Stone sample ("This is a game/I'm your specimen") are suddenly overtaken by pure panic — pulse-racing drums, anxious organ jabs, pent-up guitar snarls, and breathless rhyming from Black Thought and Malik B. "In the Music" exemplifies the deeply textured nature of the album's production work, with its rolling/roiling rhythm — throbbing bass, clanging percussion, tight spirals of guitar — made all the more claustrophobic by Porn's amorphous chorus and Black Thought's and Malik B.'s hunched-shoulder deliveries. Even "Baby," the closest thing to a breather in this patch of the album, arises from a sweltering jungle bog. After "Long Time," the ninth track, the levels of tension and volume decrease, yet the moods are no brighter, even if the surfaces leave a different impression. "Clock with No Hands" is introduced as a sweet slow jam with a light vocal hook from Mercedes Martinez, but it's as paranoid as anything else on the album. Jack Davey projects the chorus of the slower, Radiohead-sampling "Atonement" in a druggy haze while Black Thought speaks of "being faced with the weight of survival." The closer, an eight-minute suite titled "Can't Stop This," features a J Dilla production — previewed on his Donuts, released the week he left this planet — that opens and closes with testimonials to the musician's talent and humanity. Taken with or without this staggering finale, Game Theory is a heavy album, the Roots' sharpest work. It's destined to become one of Def Jam's proudest, if not most popular, moments.

The Roots - Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 1 (Nov 15, 2005: Geffen)
With albums that vary greatly in style and purpose, and some of them taking more time than usual to warm up to, getting beginners hooked on the Roots isn't easy (unless you can drag that unsoulful someone to one of their amazing live shows, then it's way easy). With unattractive cover art, a track listing that counts down across two volumes that are only available separately, and liner notes that are languid and unwieldy for the newbie, Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 1 is hardly for beginners. But if the quote "to truly understand the Roots as artists and as human beings you must exercise one character trait: Patience" was on the cover rather than buried deep in the credits, it would be easier to forgive this sprawling collection that is, at worst,, a sentimental stroll through the band's career. Of interest to the longtime fans are the unreleased cuts, remixes, and a live version of "It's Comin'," from way back in 1993, but the most rewarding bit of newness for Vol 1. are the liner notes from member ?uestlove. Who knew the death of Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose's unwillingness to hand over a new Guns N' Roses album to Geffen put the Roots' career in jeopardy? or that the dress J-Lo wore to the Grammys caused the boys to get tongue-tied while accepting an award? There are more personal and poignant stories to digest but even ?uestlove seems to be speaking to the faithful by leaving out the basics. Bumping the old, scrappy Roots tracks against the older, more learned and loose ones is interesting, and the flow of the whole collection is near-perfect, but fervent admirers are going to have most of this, either through their official purchases, or grabbing from the underbelly of the Internet where unreleased Roots is well represented. Home Grown! suffers from the misrepresentation in its title, but if you don't mind acquiring some of these tracks again or have plenty of that all important "patience," it's a rich and rewarding way to hang with this poignant groove crew.

The Roots - Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 2 (Nov 15, 2005: Geffen)
Just like Vol 1., Home Grown! The Beginner's Guide to Understanding the Roots, Vol. 2 suffers from its title's misrepresentation of what's inside. You might understand the poignant groove crew a little better after taking in the two volumes' 160 minutes, but what could have been a tight collection that really benefits the beginner is blown up into two separate releases with languid and long liner notes more suited for the familiar fan. Taken that way, both of the sold-separately volumes add up to a great way to hang and remember, with unreleased cuts and remixes sweetening the deal. Vol. 2 is a shade better than Vol. 1 if only for the inclusion of the band's excellent appearance on Gilles Peterson's BBC radio show. The "Seed/Melting Pot/Web" medley pulled from the appearance is absolutely necessary for the believer, plus getting The Tipping Point's uplifting interpolation of George Kranz's classic "Din Da Da" on its own track — instead of having to fast forward past all the silence to find the "hidden track gem" — makes putting your own great Roots comp together all the easier. Buried amongst the credits is the album's excuse for being so unwieldy, claiming "to truly understand the Roots as artists and as human beings you must exercise one character trait: Patience." That's too true, since the band's discography still lacks a tight introduction as of Home Grown!'s release, but capturing the essence of the group on one CDR would be an easy task for any longtime fan. All their selections would most likely be found amongst Home Grown!'s two volumes, but conceptually this beginner's guide gets too bogged down with insider-focused liner notes, a track list that counts down instead of up across two volumes, and too much patience required. If you want a two-volume portable selection that flows well, contains some exciting, unheard numbers, and eventually gets around to all the big cuts, have at it. It's a great way for the converted to submerge themselves in sprawling world of the Roots, but putting "beginner" on the cover is like telling a Beatles neophyte to start with the White Album.

Stay tune...As Salaam Aleikum

And inshaAllah soon we move 2 new domain ;)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

GZA The Genius

The Genius, aka The GZA, was the most cerebral MC in The Wu-Tang Clan, as well as perhaps the most acclaimed. His cool, precise flow and intricate, literate rhymes weren't as theatrical as Method Man or Ol'Dirty Bastard, the two biggest commercial stars to spring from the collective. But among hip-hop aficionados, the Genius was revered for his flawless technique and lyrical dexterity, and was considered by many to be the best pure rapper in the entire Clan. The Genius was born Gary Grice on August 22, 1966, in Staten Island, NY, and shuttled between several other New York boroughs with various relatives during his childhood. He started learning rhymes by the earliest hip-hop MCs while spending time in the Bronx, and returned to Staten Island to share them with his cousins, who later became Ol'Dirty Bastard and The RZA. In fact, the three of them first teamed up in the early '80s as part of an obscure group called All in Together Now.Time passed, and the Genius landed a recording contract with Cold Chillin', which, unfortunately, was nearing the end of its brilliant run. In 1991, he became the only future Wu-Tang member to release a solo album prior to The Clan's formation, with Words From The Genius. Produced mostly by Easy Mo Bee, the album flopped badly and, creatively, did little to hint at the Genius' future standing. Conflicts with the label sent the Genius packing, and he reteamed with a similarly disenchanted RZA (fresh off a failed stint with Tommy Boy) and Ol'Dirty Bastard to co-found The Wu-Tang Clan. Adding six other friends and associates, the group became an underground sensation and took the rap world by storm with its 1993 debut, Enter The Wu-TAng (36 Chambers). Their innovative contract allowed each member to sign a solo deal with whatever label they chose, and the Genius wound up on Geffen. In 1994, his first post Wu solo track, "I Gotcha Back," appeared on the soundtrack of the film Fresh. His second solo album, Liquid Swords, followed in 1995 and was hailed as a hip-hop classic thanks to its coolly understated menace. While it didn't make him a star on the level of Method Man, the album did sell well, reaching the pop Top Ten and falling one spot short of the top of the R&B charts. There were no big mainstream hits, but the title cut, "Cold World," and "Shadowboxin'" all did well on the rap charts.Following The Clan's 1997 sophomore set, Wu-Tang Forever, the Genius returned to the solo arena with 1999's Beneath The Surface. While critics didn't praise it quite as lavishly as Liquid Swords, it was another well-received effort (especially compared to some of the lackluster follow-ups elsewhere in the Wu-Tang camp), and it topped the R&B album charts. After reconvening with The Wu for 2000's The W and 2001's Iron Flag, the Genius dropped his fourth solo effort, Legend of The Liquid Sword, in late 2002, consolidating his reputation as one of the most skillful rappers around.

GZA - Words From The Genius (1990: Cold Chillin')
When The Wu-Tang Clan came out of the gate in late 1993, they brought with them a new style, a style that literally changed the rap game just as Dr. Dre had done a year earlier. But even though it seemed like The Wu came from nowhere, they actually had a rather modest beginning. Words From the Genius is that beginning. Released in 1991 on the once-mighty Cold Chillin label, the album features the Genius, and to a lesser degree RZA (here known as Prince Rakeem), in rather pedestrian form (sorry, no Marley Marl beats here). When you consider Cold Chillin's roster in 1991 — most notably Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap — Words From the Genius seems to be a perfect fit. Like those two rappers, the Genius merged bravado with the darkside of street life and delivered his street-smart rhymes with muscle. The Genius unfortunately sounds kind of flat here; not just because you've come to know him as GZA, the most insightful and lyrically dexterous member of The Wu, but mostly because he hasn't yet honed those qualities, instead emulating his Cold Chillin peers. Wu devotees should nonetheless find Words From the Genius at least somewhat of a novelty, and Cold Chillin fans will find that it's a decent, though often dismissed, entry in the label's canon.
Often acclaimed as the best Wu-Tang solo project of all, Liquid Swords cemented the Genius/GZA's reputation as the best pure lyricist in the group — and one of the best of the '90s. Rich in allusions and images, his cerebral, easy-flowing rhymes are perhaps the subtlest and most nuanced of any Wu MC, as underscored by his smooth, low-key delivery. The Genius' eerie calm is a great match for RZA's atmospheric production, which is tremendously effective in this context; the kung fu dialogue here is among the creepiest he's put on record, and he experiments quite a bit with stranger sounds and more layered tracks. Not only is RZA in top form, but every Clan member makes at least one appearance on the album, making it all the more impressive that Liquid Swords clearly remains The Genius' showcase throughout. All of his collaborators shape themselves to his quietly intimidating style, giving Liquid Swords a strongly consistent tone and making it an album that gradually slithers its way under your skin. Mixing gritty story-songs and battle rhymes built on elaborate metaphors (martial arts and chess are two favorites), The Genius brings his lyrical prowess to the forefront of every track, leaving no doubt about how he earned his nickname. Creepily understated tracks like "Liquid Swords," "Cold World," "Investigative Reports," and "I Gotcha Back" are the album's bread and butter, but there's the occasional lighter moment ("Labels" incorporates the names of as many record companies as possible) and spiritual digression ("Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth"). Overall, though, Liquid Swords is possibly the most unsettling album in the Wu canon (even ahead of Ol'Dirty Bastard), and it ranks with Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx as one of the group's undisputed classics.
There were so many Wu-Tang related projects released during 1998 and 1999 that listeners — and even fans — could be forgiven for a bit of apathy regarding the second solo effort by Wu-Tang's Genius/GZA. The collective's trademark detuned strings had gone from de rigueur to downright dated by mid-1999, and except for a well-received RZA solo album earlier in the year, the lead in hip-hop's hype game appeared to have been taken over by Timbaland's brand of future funk. It may not have proved the commercial smash of a proper Wu-Tang LP, but Genius/GZA's Beneath the Surface is a worthy continuation and development of the Wu-Tang Clan conglomeration. The best tracks here, "Amplified Sample" and "Crash Your Crew," are quintessentially Wu-Tang, but with important tweaks to the trademark sound. The crisp, clean production — by Wu associates Inspectah Deck, Mathematics, and Arabian Priest — sounds much better than any project that had been recently issued (even RZA's Bobby Digital), and GZA's raps prove he's the most innovative and talented vocalist Wu-Tang had to offer. The only failure (at least in terms of sound) is "Victim," a cloying track with a bit of scratched acoustic guitar and some X Files-styled strings. Other than a few "skits" that disturb the flow, Beneath the Surface is arguably the best thing to come out of the Wu camp since their second proper album, Forever.
Released at the end of a quiet year for the Wu-Tang family, GZA's Legend of the Liquid Sword proves Gary Grice is easily the most underrated rapper in the fold, and definitely the most consistent as a solo artist. The album gains power as it progresses; after a compelling "Auto Bio" that's chained down by a bland production, and "Did Ya Say That," wherein the Genius sounds downright confused (or worse, resigned) about the game of label politics, Legend of the Liquid Sword locks into a great groove with the single "Knock, Knock" and rarely misses after that. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang features "Fam (Members Only)," featuring RZA and Masta Killa, and "Silent," featuring Ghostface Killah, are big highlights, with a sound similar to 2001's Iron Flag. Surprisingly, though, his track with low-profile Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck bests the other two."Fame" finds the Genius weaving some clever word games around celebrity names, and guest Allen Anthony makes the title track into a grand funk jam akin to OutKast. The productions on Legend of the Liquid Sword are below average for a talent like his, but chances are good that's by design; since GZA is a rapper's rapper, his smooth flow and excellent imagination are all that's necessary to propel any of these tracks.

Considering that Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs and Wu-Tang MC GZA have been collaborating since 1997, when Muggs was releasing his first Soul Assassins record, it makes a lot of sense that the two of them got together to create a full-length record. DJ Muggs gave GZA a copy of 15 of his beats, and two months later they met up in L.A. to record Grandmasters. Of course, the attention of the record is focused on GZA's rhymes, as it should be, but Muggs, the skilled producer that he is, makes his presence felt without being blatant about it, and provides a very good, dramatic backdrop for the rapper. Grandmasters refers both to chess and hip-hop, the two main topics of the record. The song titles allude to situations encountered in a chess game (many of which are briefly described in interludes by Russian-accented speakers), but GZA and the other rappers featured on the record (Wu-Tang associates RZA, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Prodigal Sunn, and Cypress Hill's Sen Dog) use the titles as interpretations of life. As if this weren't obvious enough, GZA himself explains that his love of chess is due to "the great high" he gets from "the movement...war, capturing, thinking, strategy, planning. It's music, it's hip-hop, it's sports, it's life, it's reality." It's a kind of concept album, with the two "grandmasters" of the game explaining the rules to everyone else. Structurally, the record starts out aggressively and strong, with songs like "Exploitation of Mistakes" (with GZA giving an almost news-report delivery) and "General Principles" introducing the ground rules and common errors. As the album moves along, the songs smooth out a little; the initial anxiety has turned into deliberation and strategy. In "Queen's Gambit," GZA, with some ingenuous use of NFL metaphors, seduces — or perhaps is seduced by — the most powerful player on the board. The end becomes apparent in the dramatic, synthesized-string-driven "Unprotected Pieces," about the "very unforgiving environment" of the rap music industry. "Illusory Protection" exposes the lack of talent in many MCs ("most of them be swinging wild and then drop the bat") and the final blow seems inevitable. But GZA is too smart to have things end so easily. Chess, life, and hip-hop are much more complicated than that. The closer, "Smothered Mate," isn't celebrating a win. It's about pain and torture and people who "Draw pistols to resolve issues/It give them a sense of closure to expose the brain tissue." This is no victory song; this is violent reality. Grandmasters is a brilliantly executed and complex record that effectively shows off the skills of the participants, and is definitely not something that should be taken as a game.


GZA - D.A.R.T.S. (Bootleg 2006)
GZA - Words From The Genius (Reissue 2006)

Enjoy...As Salaam Aleikum