or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
For the GZA, when the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan (OK, maybe it was just Meth) dubs you the head of their world-beating Voltron, that’s burden enough. When your first post-36 Chambers solo album (GZA had released one album before joining the collective—1991’s Words from the Genius) is the cerebral, mystically archaic Liquid Swords—an album beloved by everyone from Chris Rock to Seth Rogen—that’s another mass of expectations.
And when your follow up to Swords, 1999’s Beneath the Surface opens with the cinematic clash of drums and an epic voice announcing, “As untold truths threaten our existence, and reality is cloaked with images of corruption, in the depths of the cavern of the mind comes another jewel from the Genius,” that’s beyond hype.
And nothing, especially in the rap world, can beat hype.
Filled with unnecessary, blindly “political” skits (literally titled “Skit #1” “Skit #2”), a glut of guest appearances from Wu JV’ers (Timbo King, Hell Razah), and executive produced by GZA-loyalist and RZA-aping Arabian Knight, who seems more than in over his head here, Surface is a head-scratcher of an album.
Following up a classic, especially a hip-hop classic, often becomes a question of how and where. But after listening to and living with Surface for years now, I can only ask, why?
The elements of that quintessential Wu-Tang production hang around: strings as tense and ceaseless as percussion, background atmospheres clogged with digital grit and dust, an almost overwhelming sense of gloom. But they are all homogenized. Arabian Knight can’t be RZA (who only chips in with “1112,” not surprisingly the most energetic string-and-concrete composition on record), and even the songs where GZA deals out his still-thrilling, still-visceral, still-mystic images reek of timing and slipshod production. There are no thematic currents, no aesthetic challenges—not even moments of nostalgic revere. The album’s whole mood, while not bargain-basement resolution, feels as comparably mechanical as a dependable theme restaurant or a James Patterson novel: Karate reference here, dusky drum plateau there.
And why crowd out the most cerebral flow in the Wu? GZA’s voice and flow—a waterfall of clenched molars and incisors beating up syllables like a thresher—and his assembly line mind for wizened Mobius strips are all a listener needs: “With age and experience my reason ripens / I strike on you Vikings; slash like a hyphen.” For GZA fans and Wu loyalist, that voice is more than enough to carry a whole album.
So what’s really going on under this Surface isn’t anything special at all: a follow-up rap album to be put on the shelf alongside Bulletproof Wallets, It Was Written, and In My Lifetime, an album decent enough to stick around, but something that can’t help but frustrate. And for that GZA doesn’t look dumber, foolish, or lazy, he just looks a little more human.