There’s a skit in the middle of GZA’s new album Pro Tools where he pontificates on the fierce allegiance of the Wu-Tang Clan’s fans. Over a decade removed from the glory days of Liquid Swords, the continued devotion of the Wu-Heads is a testament to just how revolutionary their music was in Hip-Hop’s evolution. That being said, the 00s have not been kind to the legacies of most of the Wu-Tang members, and GZA is certainly no exception to the rule. As an album, Pro Tools fails to reform Voltron from the ashes, or break any new ground offering only glimpses of the talent that made the GZA a legend.
The album’s high points stem from the GZA’s technical acumen, which has barely slipped. He remains, on paper, one of the best MCs of all time, with an uncanny ability to pack his rhymes with double entendres. Throughout Pro Tools, GZA shows that his storytelling chops, rhyme schemes, and ability to build themeatic verses using metaphors remain strong. “Path of Destruction,” brings to life the tale of a youth headed down the wrong path, with a wisdom that comes from being older and wiser. “Cinema,” is for lack of a better word, cinematic. GZA’s whispery descriptions of the setting effectively paint a picture of the horror in the mind of the listener. “Alphabets”‘ chorus put a spin on your traditional ABCs, although the lyrics are less coherent than “Labels.” Best of the bunch is “Pencil,” where RZA and Masta Killa help conjure up a little old school Wu magic.
One of the largest criticisms of GZA’s past albums was the production, which was largely blamed for the critical failings of Beneath the Surface and Legend of the Liquid Sword. The same cannot be said for Pro Tools: from the classic dark strings of “Firehouse” to the weirdly dope remake of Gary Numan on “Life Is A Movie,” the producers have given the GZA something to work with.
The disappointment of Pro Tools is that he can’t take advantage. Too often the Genius sounds like his heart isn’t in it. No better example of this can be found than the G-Unit diss track, “Paper Plate.” The beat is a clever spin on “You So Tough,” and GZA’s lyrical swords are sharp: (“One verse shatter your spine and crush your spirit, no matter what you still window shop for lyrics.”) But a diss track needs anger, some sort of fire to let the listener get into the mood of the song, and GZA can’t produce. It’s a problem that plagues the album: the man sounds as if he forgot to drink his morning coffee before hitting the studio. “0% Finance,” which inexcusably utilizes a beat from Legend of the Liquid Sword, is another example of a track that could have been better. GZA cleverly puts together an extended metaphor using car references, but you can barely dig them out of his monotone mumbling.
With Pro Tools, we get an album that offers up that will satisfy the Wu-heads willing to slog through the dead parts, but lacks the accessibility or sheer mastery to draw in new fans. Judging from GZA’s take on the cult of the Wu, maybe that’s how he wants it.