Anyone who’s been down with the Wu-Tang Clan since day one knows the legend that nobody wanted to follow GZA on posse cuts, ensuring that he always rhymed last. The Genius may not always run the anchor leg when the Clan gets together these days, but his gift for lyricism is still on display on his first true solo record in nearly six years, Pro Tools.
Right from the first track, GZA sounds as formidable as ever. Alongside brethren Masta Killa and RZA on the up-tempo opening track, “Pencil,” he references topics as diverse as chess and pro wrestling while delivering warnings to other emcees. As with many previous joints from this crew there’s no chorus, and an inspired RZA rhymes for nearly two minutes straight to bring it home.
More classic Wu flavor is delivered on “Alphabets” and “Groundbreaking,” which sound like they could have fit in comfortably on Liquid Swords thanks to beats by True Master and Bronze Nazareth, respectively. The latter is only a little ironic thanks to a partially recycled chorus: “And we roll together as one/ I call my brother son ‘cause he shines like one.”
Another knack GZA has always possessed is the ability to construct a creative concept song, and he’s got that covered here too. “0 % Finance” sees him weave the names of all kinds of cars and trucks into a story, showing off a skill he’s kept sharp since the days of “Labels.”
Just past the halfway point of Pro Tools lies the track that’s raised the most eyebrows, the RZA-produced “Paper Plate.” Though the Clan members aren’t known for getting involved in too many industry beefs, this is an unabashed assault on one high profile rapper who’s been going back and forth with GZA for a little while. And even though the intro should make it clear who he’s talking about, he leaves no doubt with lines like, “Enough to make you vogue on the cover of GQ/Only missing a sheer blouse, homey you see-through/ Stop sipping on that Formula 50/They want heat, I give it to them, burnt and crispy.”
Unfortunately, the second half of the album doesn’t carry through on the promise of the first. Things get a little bogged down towards the end when songs like “Cinema” and “Life is a Movie” can’t keep up musically with what’s come before. Perhaps a few less producers or simply more than two beats from RZA would have helped, though GZA went on the record before this album’s release and said that he was having trouble rhyming to the more cinematic style his old partner utilizes today.
Just when Pro Tools threatens to go out with a whimper instead of a bang, it finishes with an excellent live performance of “Elastic Audio,” reminding us that – to paraphrase an old RZA quote – GZA delivers hip hop in its purest form. He’s been doing it that way for almost two decades now, and his fans are no doubt thankful for that. – Nick Tylwalk
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