For a guy who’s always making promises, GZA hasn’t been acting like he has much to prove lately. His decision to extend the one-off Don’t Look Back performance of 1994’s stark, gothic Liquid Swords into a tour that now feels less like a celebration and more like an oft-performed ritual is creatively baffling; sure, it’s re-introduced many people to a sort-of overlooked classic, but to those unfamiliar to the Wu-Tang member’s back catalog, it suggests writer’s block thinly draped with reverence.
To those familiar, however, it shouldn’t make much difference. Between the broad cinematic appeal of 1999’s Beneath the Surface, 2002’s humid, stoned-soul Legend of the Liquid Sword, and the airtight beat craft of 2005’s still-underrated collaboration with DJ Muggs, Grandmasters, GZA has blessed Wu disciples with a vast array of choice cuts — no matter the consistency of the individual full-lengths. In that respect, the Genius’ latest full-length Pro Tools is no different; while its power as a long-player doesn’t hold up very well, random dissection brings out tracks destined for analog and digital freaks alike (in case that title -- and the sparse cover -- had you worrying).
What’s fascinating is how much Pro Tools takes after the ghost tones of last year’s contentiously great Wu-Tang non-comeback, 8 Diagrams. The lonely moans of “Alphabets,” the serpentine guitar samples that make up “Short Race,” and the electric funk of the Gary Numan-sampling “Life is A Movie” are degrees more lushly haunted than anything on 8 Diagrams. Unsurprisingly, you have the Wu-affiliated True Master and Arabian Knight, as well as RZA, to thank, respectively; even the RZA-produced drops of keyboard horror on the otherwise out-of-place 50 Cent diss “Paper Plate” are atmospherically dense.
Also surprising is how lyrically playful GZA has become. “I brought butter for the popcorn/ Dip for the chips/ And ego for your trip/ Some scripts for you to flip,” he offers on “Alphabets,” and he ain’t kidding. Narrative isn’t the name of the game here — the game itself is, as the Genius reveals himself to be a man as much in love with wordplay as he is with playing chess. The free-associative rant of “0% Finance” is indecipherable fun, and the close-to-the-vest beat-ride of “7 Pounds” causes even GZA himself to be amazed: “When I grab the microphone/ The unthinkable happens.”
Of course, the unnecessary guest spots and filler are what make Pro Tools more of a Pretty Toney Album and less of a Supreme Clientele — but you got to admire his veteran’s persistence, especially when it pays off. In the end, though, GZA ends up looking back anyway; that palm-muted beat on “0% Finance”? Stripped from Legend of the Liquid Swords’s “Stay In Line.” Here’s to a 360 vision.