GZA's Legend of the Liquid Sword won't restore his crew to its previous peaks, mostly because it's too good to incite mainstream mania. There are no Neptunes beats, no R&B guest stars, few easy hooks. Instead, GZA (n Gary Grice) takes the traits that reigned when Wu was king -- dictionary-depleting flows, orchestral swells and erratic synthesized pulses, static-smothered samples that sound as though they were aged for quality, human voices tweaked and looped until they become otherworldly percussive instruments -- and eliminates the decadent frills that marred the Clan's rule. This Sword doesn't waste a cut, slicing off the skits and chopping out the filler.
RZA, the producer behind the soul-meets-the-martial-arts sound that earned the Wu its rep, mans the boards for only one of Sword's fifteen tracks, but a legion of Shaolin-schooled sonic assassins preserves his legacy. The album's only other big-name beatmaker is DJ Muggs, who usually watches Cypress Hill's stoners waste his air-raid-whistle urgency and cinematic string arrangements. Here, he sets up GZA with a tense, thrilling backdrop filled with lingering, quivering notes and prickly piano bursts. The rapper also known as the Genius doesn't disappoint, delivering a devastating portrait of a serial killer terrorizing a tiny town. He chronicles the sociopath's troubled upbringing, horrific acts and eventual arrest in a dispassionate tone, with a thoroughness that makes this tale feel more true than anything from gangsta rap's "keep it real" storybook.
The only Wu-Tang member who consistently writes songs with themes rather than stringing together sweet-sounding syllables without concern for context, GZA outdoes himself with "Animal Planet." This lush jungle boogie name-checks almost every creature that's ever appeared on the Discovery Channel, but a music-industry analogy lurks underneath, one that warns of gambling with cheetahs and swimming with lone sharks. Later, he puts a twist on the old fun-with-surnames game, working Brad's pit and Vanessa's red grave, among countless others, into a dense narrative that wrings an astounding number of great lines out of this gimmick. ("Water dripped out of Farrah's faucet into a glass/She was Superfly/Curtis Mayfield her ass.") His group may be getting dull, but GZA's Sword remains razor-sharp.