Quick describe what you think when you hear the phrase "sounds like a Wu-Tang track." Gritty, head-bobbing yet undanceable beats under orchestral strings looped in a menacing manner? Check. Dense, quickly rhymed lyrics that reference kung-fu moves, killer bees, life in New York and the weakness of other rappers? Check. Thick and deep with guest appearances? Check.
Okay, got that sound in your mind? Unless you're a die-hard GZA fan, I just saved you 15 bucks.
GZA is widely considered to be one of the Wu-Tang Clan's most gifted lyricists, spitting out metaphors and similes that strike down wannabe MCs and put their creator on a pedestal with a sturdy confidence matched only by such celebrated hip-hop vets as Rakim and KRS-One.
That confidence is predominant throughout Beneath the Surface, taking a backseat only to social commentary tracks such as "Victim" and "High Price, Small Reward." GZA hasn't lost the devastating flow demonstrated on the Wu-Tang albums and 1995's Liquid Swords. And he isn't bowing to the playa/baller/pimp rhyme trends that dominate the hip-hop airwaves.
While he deserves kudos for taking a pass on giving the world another rhyme about rolling and balling, he and his producers also deserve some criticism for failing to push the Wu sound in a new direction.
It's been six years since the first Wu-Tang album, yet GZA and the Wu production team still insist on slapping together spare, hard-hitting beats, haunted samples and looped strings. We don't let rock guitarists milk the same riff for six years (Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry being the exceptions that prove the rule), why should hip-hop loopmeisters be any different?
That said, there actually are some engaging tracks on Beneath the Surface.
"Breaker Breaker" (RealAudio excerpt), the album's first single, is a solid mixture of the Wu-sound and an East Coast electric bounce that's so catchy it threatens to bring back CB radios (it is about time for them to be retro-hip, right?)
And, while "Publicity" 's (RealAudio excerpt) hard-hitting beats and you guessed it a grimy string hook are unremarkable, GZA's name checking of magazines is entertaining: "Who be first to catch this Beat Down?/ My Rap Pages be The Source/ Ego Trip a main victory, with no loss/ Rap Sheet shows ya' Details of wars in streets/ Where the most live catch Vibe and Blaze heat." XXL, Tiger Beat, Ebony, Right On!, Rolling Stone, CMJ, Murder Dog and the Village Voice are among the other rags getting name checked, but GZA apparently isn't plugged in and leaves out the online zines that have proliferated in the past five years.
Such gifted lyrics, however, are in shockingly short supply on Beneath the Surface, meaning that the few diamonds-in-the-rough shine with a deceptive dazzle. On a more solid album, for example, GZA's boast in "Crash Your Crew" that he "beat Crazy Eddie insane" might be a throwaway line, but here it brings a smirk and a chuckle.
Perhaps I'm wrong. It could be that the lyrics here do stand up to GZA's previous work. But the production seems so by-the-numbers, it makes it hard to a) listen to the lyrics and b) find some hope that GZA has, as they say, taken things to the next level.
Next time, this bee is advised to explore some new hives.