Album Review: GZA – Pro Tools

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In the days leading up to the release of Pro Tools, GZA’s sixth solo album, the Wu-Tang rapper revealed in an interview with Vibe the thought process behind the album’s title: “Well, it’s the production software program, basically. The people at Babygrande were asking for a name. I was looking around the house, or the studio, and trying to come up with something, and I may even have been reading the actual Pro Tools manual and just went with that, and it works great with the album.”

So there you have it. The deep, metaphorical truth behind the seemingly simple album title. GZA was sitting around reading a Pro Tools manual when his phone rang. How trill is that? It’s just a good thing he was doing something related to the art of making music at the time. Had he been out mowing the lawn when the phone rang, the album would have been titled Toro and overzealous Wu-Tang fans with “W” tattoos would be blowing up Internet message boards in attempts to decipher the drug metaphor.

As it stands, Pro Tools is actually a pretty good name for the album. The statement, “This album was made on Pro Tools”, would probably be enough to sum up the production. It’s not that the production is poor, but when it comes down to it, GZA’s work has always been about lyricism, and on Pro Tools that is pretty much the sole focus.

Perhaps the most telling fact surrounding Pro Tools is that GZA is celebrating its release by touring around the country and performing the entirety of Liquid Swords. You have to respect a guy for knowing what his best album is, but the timing seems a little funny and it gives off the impression that, even to the artist, Pro Tools is something of an afterthought. Liquid Swords is the best solo Wu-Tang effort (sorry Rae) because everything came together so splendidly as a cohesive unit. GZA came with his usual biting lyrics. RZA’s production was just murky enough to match the dark subject matter of the songs. And practically every guest (including every single Wu-Tang member) dropped strong lines that complemented (but did not outshine) GZA’s mastery. It is a solo album in name alone. Genius/GZA may be the credited artist, but the MC is really just leading Wu-Tang Clan in one of the collective’s brightest moments.

Pro Tools is a different story. Here it is all about the lyrics. This is not necessarily a bad thing. GZA is unquestionably the finest lyricist in the Clan, which puts him pretty high in the running for finest lyricist worldwide. And on his new album he proves that he has not missed a beat. In fact, the case could even be made that he is a better lyricist now than he has ever been.

GZA continues to be a master of concept tracks. On “0% Finance”, he takes the tired woman-as-car analogy to new heights by executing it so completely and flawlessly. On “Alphabets”, he rattles off the entire Supreme Alphabet each time the chorus hits. It’s how naturally GZA pulls off these concepts that allows them to work. In and of itself there is nothing terribly interesting in songs like these, but GZA delivers them in such a subtle manner that they are fascinating and repeat listens reveal deeper and deeper layers to each track.

Unfortunately, very few of these songs are musically engaging enough to keep the average consumer interested enough for repeat listens. Tracks by RZA, Black Milk, and Mathematics play like old beats they had sitting around, and the rest of the production is done by minor Wu-Tang affiliates and relative no-names.  And nobody delivers anything closely resembling a banger. And it almost seems that this is what GZA wanted: low-key production that shows off his lyrics. If you don’t dig lyrical hip hop, go home.

The same could be said about the relative lack of guest stars. RZA and Masta Killa are the only Wu-Tang members to appear on the album, a somewhat strange phenomenon that hints that the rift in the Clan may be a little deeper than we thought. The rest of the guests spots are filled with up-and-comers who will probably never up-and-come, including some guy named Ka who, given the fact that he has a full track to himself, may actually be GZA with laryngitis.

Pro Tools’ most talked about moment (and by far most interesting one) is “Paper Plate”, GZA’s attack on 50 Cent and G-Unit. It isn’t the best song on the album, but it’s the one moment that could even vaguely be described as “personal”. GZA takes 50 to task for his sub-par lyrical skills. Why one of the greatest lyrical rappers of all time found it necessary to take shots at a candy shop rapper like 50 is beyond me, but as GZA uses solo Wu-Tang album titles to describe all the ways his clique would verbally annihilate 50’s, I can’t help but enjoy the brief spark of that old Wu-Tang venom.

One mildly surprising aspect of Pro Tools is the lack of cursing. While it is not unheard of for a hip hop to be so squeaky clean, it is not expected from a Wu-Tang release. I don’t see this as good or bad… just notable.  Though I must say, it’s nice to be able to play a rap album loudly in my car without having to roll the windows up when the Little League team rolls by in a mini-van next to me. Let’s just hope that next time out, GZA gives me an album I want to blare from my car stereo.

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