GZA/Genius' Beneath the Surface is the past week's #9 album in the United States. He has every reason to believe his music is making an impact in rap. But the Wu-Tang Clan rapper is not about to let that spoil his chess game.
For GZA/Genius, in fact, playing a respectable game of chess is not all that different from creating meaningful rap music.
A typical recording session with GZA/Genius, according to his producers and collaborators, goes something like this: Record a song, hang out and play chess, record, play chess, record, play chess. That's just how the rapper works.
Arabian Night (born Sulayman Ansari), who is listed as co-executive producer of Beneath the Surface, said GZA/Genius prefers beats that are as wide open as possible, beats that allow him to improvise and turn and weave vocally not unlike a chess champion moving in for the kill.
Improvising and creating on the fly, Arabian Night said, are what the rapper does best.
"On the second verse of 'Breaker, Breaker' I was just sitting there like, 'Yo! This is crazy,' Arabian Night said of the rapper's lead single from the album. "I mean, 'The immortality of things is a measure of other people's torture.' Man, he can take a 13-letter word and make it sound like [the words] 'and,' 'but,' 'if.' The whole second verse of that song is nuts."
Producers and collaborators for Beneath the Surface, GZA/Genius' third solo effort, said it is the type of album one might expect from a performer who uses two names professionally, plays chess on his studio downtime and buys birthday cakes for people he hardly even knows.
It's thoughtful, entertaining and good to the last track, they agreed.
"Over the years, you see a lot of guys who is nice, but then you see a lot of brothers get rhymed out. But not GZA. He always got me tranquilized," said Mathematics, who produced the songs "Publicity" (RealAudio excerpt), "Mic Trippin"
(RealAudio excerpt), "High Price, Small Reward," "Amplified Sample" and "Feel Like an Enemy."
Arabian Night, who produced five songs on the album, including the album's lush lead single, "Breaker, Breaker" (RealAudio excerpt), paid tribute to GZA/Genius' lyrical ability. "The type of words that he uses and his flow, the way he pronounces his speech he doesn't talk gunplay, but he still gets you hyped," Arabian Night said.
Born Gary Grice, the 33-year-old GZA/Genius is a founding member of the pioneering Staten Island, N.Y., hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan, which released two platinum albums, 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Wu-Tang Forever. Six of its nine members have released solo albums; the other three are working on their solo debuts.
Debuting at #9 on the Billboard 200 albums chart last week, Beneath the Surface, released by MCA Records, is the first of what may be as many as seven Wu-Tang solo albums set for release this year. Albums by fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Method Man (with Redman), U-God and Ghostface Killah are scheduled to hit store shelves by December on various labels.
GZA/Genius's career dates to 17 years ago, when he was billed solely as the Genius. He released his first solo album, Words From the Genius, on the independent Cold Chillin' Records in 1991, building an underground following in the process. Mathematics, formerly a DJ and for the last two years a producer for Wu-Tang Productions, said he worked with the Genius on that album.
He described GZA/Genius as someone who understands "true lyrics" and how to approach traditional hip-hop beats.
"Basically, it's like with GZA, [the songs] all got a certain type of connection," said Mathematics, who gave his real name as Allah Mathematics. "I like make beats like almost every day. Music is more or less emotion to me. What is said [by the rapper] makes you think. There's a compatibility right there; It's like incredible. I make a beat and it's like marriage with GZA."
GZA/Genius' second album was 1995's Liquid Swords, among the most critically acclaimed of the Wu-Tang solo releases. Arabian Night and Mathematics said GZA/Genius has improved since that time, yet the artist still tries to keep things loose.
Even so, Mathematics said recording Beneath the Surface was efficient and professional. The album was put down in just under four weeks in March. "Publicity," one of the record's most striking tracks, was conceived and recorded in an afternoon.
Randy Nkonoki, the executive producer of 88 Hip-Hop, an online television station, said that when GZA/Genius does press interviews or appears on shows, he makes time for fun.
During an appearance at that station last month, GZA/Genius and fellow guests EPMD decided to throw an impromptu birthday party for one of the station's producers. GZA/Genius bought the cake. EPMD bought the champagne.
"I'd call him sincere, humble, down-to-earth. He's doing it for the love and everything," Nkonoki said. "He's not trying to cater his lyrics to gold chains. If you hear him rhyme about gold chains, he does it in a sharp way."
As are most of the Wu-Tang albums, this one can be classified as anti-pop the beats and the lyrical wordplay are king. Yet that stubbornness, by GZA/Genius and the other group members, is what will keep them viable commercially for years to come, Arabian Night said.
"They'll always bring what the core expects as true hip-hop," he said.