The GZA/Genius, the head on the Wu-Tang Clan's Voltron formation, kind of sneaked up on us with the release of "Pro Tools," his fifth solo album.
The title is a play on the popular computer program many rap producers rely upon for their sounds; it is also a reflection of the type of supreme, metaphoric wordplay listeners have become accustomed to getting from GZA, who never fails to deliver with incredible lyrical technique.
This album is nothing different in the lyrics department. Considering GZA's past albums, though, the music -- crafted by a range of beat makers from Wu-Tang mainstays to Detroit's budding super producer Black Milk -- leaves something to be desired.
Normally, GZA doesn't stray from his formula: hard-hitting beats with sophisticated, righteous lyrics layered with a number of meanings. The same is true for how "Pro Tools" starts off with "Pencil," a classic Wu-Tang sounding track produced by Mathematics, and features Masta Killa and RZA trading verses peppered with familiar references to chess and martial arts, admonishing amateur rappers for engaging in a profession clearly not meant for them.
GZA again displays enviable lyrical skills on the next song, "Alphabets," where the hook is comprised of words that begin with each letter of the alphabet -- in order. No easy feat.
On "Groundbreaking," one of two duets with GZA's son Justice Kareem, the two rappers literally finish each other's lines, successfully showing and proving that there are still a plethora of new styles of rhyme that have yet to be explored.
"0% Finance" is a perfect example of this album's stale production, featuring a beat that is an exact replica of his song "Stay in Line" from his last album, "Legend of the Liquid Sword," which was released six years ago. Not to mention it remains way too reminiscent of Method Man's song "Release Yo Delf". But with the emergence of so many
The same can be said for a number of the songs on "Pro Tools" -- they are all disappointingly similar to past GZA and/or Wu-Tang songs. We all know and love that Wu-Tang sound, but even RZA updated his sound on his latest album.
And while there are more than a few questions real Hiphop heads have about 50 Cent's popularity and success, "Paper Plate," a dis track aimed straight at 50's head, comes off more as a publicity stunt designed to being attention to "Pro Tools" rather than actual verbal sparring. We all know GZA is lyrically superior to most -- especially 50 -- but this song, which had the potential to be amazing and perhaps even start the end to 50's career, is a disappointment on so many levels.
All the aforementioned songs are sure to still please GZA's unconditional fans, but one song all Hiphop fans should enjoy is "Short Race," an ill story told in GZA's signature monotone over crisp, hard-hitting drums and simple, sparse strings. The song works so well you find yourself wondering (again) why the album's executive producer couldn't select better beats.
"Firehouse," curiously featuring Mobb Deep affiliate Big Twinz (who has improved exponentially, especially as of late) spitting a tough rhyme, is an old-school sounding track that would probably be better suited for the likes of Ghostface, who regularly thrives over this type of production. GZA conspicuously is only found on the hook, but Big Twinz shines and holds his own.
Finally, RZA the producer comes through with "Life is a Movie," an incredible beat with an even crazier RZA verse that provides a pulse (however brief) for an otherwise mostly flatlined sound scape.
I can't say it enough -- the one problem with this album is its production. While the beats used on "Pro Tools" would probably successfully launch any new jack's career, we the listeners hold GZA to a way higher standard than MC Johnny Come Lately.
Also, GZA doesn't necessarily show any growth, instead preferring to stick to the same themes found on most, if not all of his albums. He very rarely strays from his comfort zone, and when he does -- as evidenced on "Cinema" -- it comes off as a weird, forced misstep.
While I'm grateful for any new music I can get from one-ninth of the almighty, incomparable Wu-Tang Clan, the group's members must always remember we expect greatness and accept nothing less. It's the gift and the curse of delivering a classic album on the first try.
"Pro Tools" falls pretty short of greatness, but it still blows most of the competition out of the water, an indication that Hiphop is still for the most part stuck in a seemingly never ending creative rut. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but is that really a bad thing?
Below is some video footage that may better explain GZA's beef with 50.