All the reviewers have given this 5 stars across the board and I can only concur.
The first thing to say is that that this is a serious piece of artwork, not just an incredible hip-hop album. It deserves to be disected in english language lessons, just as much as Bob Dylan's stuff is. The Rza and Gza are the artistic core of the group and this album demonstrates that. All the weight comes from them.
The characterisation of Staten Island NY. as 'Shaolin', and themselves as Hip-Hops 'Monks' (the abbot and the master in the case pf Gza and Rza) is an imagery and a mythology developed by those two.
This imagery and mythology becomes fully understood on this album, whereas on the other albums it really never rises above the threshold of interesting background.
An example is the way that the clip from the film 'Shogun Assassin', when Lone Wolf tells his baby son to choose the ball or the sword. A life of normal play or of abnormal seriousness and violence. A life that skips past childhood. This choice, the father explains, is a choice between death and life, because in the situation they are in, 'playing' is not an option. One has to be 'grown-up' from the 'get-go'.
This of course is the situation on th streets of New York. This is what GZA is telling us and this is why this is included. Pure Genius.
Hip-Hop has always been about the kind of culture that makes insects eating filth under a rock in the garden thrive. The world forgets them. The world creates systems, economic, educational, pseudo-religious, social (and always has done) that means that only certain types of people reach their promised 'destination' while everybody else falls through big cracks in the road. What are those people who fall supposed to do? How can they find self-worth when the world tells them that they are worthless? How can they aspire when the world tells them that this is not for them? This is the modern 'caste' system that is the shadow side of the American dream (and as I write this in London, we all of around around the world have bought into this dream. Often, the only ones who know the truth are those who have been systematically denied it. To build the pyramids in egypt, slaves were required. Slaves and other types of 'lesser human' are still required today. We are living in Huxley's Brave New world)
This essentially is what the album is about, and it is well illustrated in about 10 secs of lyrical dexterity that, to my mind, put in the shade the entire oeuvre of people like 50 cent and Jay-Z
'Veterans got the game spiced like ham, and from that sons are born and then guns are drawn, clips are fully loaded, and then blood floods the lawn'.
Governments, Presidents, societies, nations, the better off, have been loading the dice in their favour for centuries and have become veterens at the game, while the sons born on the streets of NY and other american cities (and now other places) are just learning the game. Just like Pacino's Scarface, who so many street kids identify with, they start from the bottm everytime. Scarface for them, represents revolution. This shows that these kids realise the situation they are in. It shows that they are intelligent and that they know this is their lot. That is the bleak outlook that provides the context and background for violence and crime on the streets of the worlds inner cities. It even explains 50 cent's 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' attitude.
Thats the intelligence which lies behind this album, which is the result of two of the most talented and intelligent insightful kids growing up and eventually chanelling thier disenfranchisement in a more positive way
Having said that, it's a dark piece of work. It's a whole life story. It's no wonder GZA hasn't been able to reach those heights again. Black music has always been about the social context which or course changed for GZA when he and his cohorts made it big.
As I write this, 13 yrs after it was released, this is the album that Hip-Hip promised for so long.
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