Album Review | GZA – Beneath the Surface

This album was released on June 29th in the year of our lord 1999. GZA is perhaps my favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan, so I’m looking forward to checking this album out. I’ve never heard it, and I don’t think I’ve even heard any of the singles, so I’m pretty much going into this blind. The track listing is kinda long, but the whole project is under 50 minutes, so it shouldn’t be too bad. I’m obviously not expecting this album to be anywhere near as amazing as Liquid Swords, but I’m sure there’ll be a handful of dope tracks here. If not, then fuck it.

As always, I’ll write about the tracks I like before discussing the songs I won’t be returning to. The first song I’ll talk about is the title track, which features Killah Priest. I actually really like the production from Inspectah Deck on this one, and I think GZA killed the opening verse.

On a man-made lake there's a sheet of thin ice
Where unskilled skaters couldn't figure-8 twice
That's sixteen uncut direct from the cult
Head on assault, the result death by the bolt
In a vault, they spoke about the average loss per mission
That was seen by a king in a prophetic vision
Like a plane crash from a bomb blast
Special broadcast, slot time with comcast
They kept the jury quiet and now the riot will form
While satanic man now hang in his dorm
I swing on you fake radio personalities
Who boost your ratings with hypes behind casualties
And fire shots with low-pressure water gun play
But instantly slap you five like it's Palm Sunday

The sampled vocals from Res sound really nice as well. According to Wikipedia, Santigold is featured on this song, but I don’t remember hearing her anywhere. Maybe she provided some extra background vocals or something. I don’t know. Anyway, the second verse from Killah Priest is fire too.

I'm like Solomon, spoke bluntly, told the world, "I'm black and comely"
Howls from the grave haunt me, the smell of death's upon me
I dwell in the Hills like Gandhi
Been in the presence of mad peasants and old kings
Who sold everything on a quest for God's Divine
Slept in caves to get a clear mind
Who prayed three times, when the Moon lit and when the Sun rise
I met dwellers in the desert, talked to shepherds
Been in the mouth of many leopards
Felt the death kiss of Satan's mistress
Walk through vacant districts, before religions I studied pagan scriptures

This is definitely a highlight for me. I don’t really have any gripes with it at all. I think it’s dope as hell. It’s followed by Crash Your Crew.

This song has a very straightforward, somewhat skeletal structure. I do like it though. I think the kind of bombastic production from John the Baptist is pretty nice. The repetitive hook from Ol’ Dirty Bastard is a little annoying, but it serves its purpose well enough. It does get stuck in my head for all the wrong reasons, but it’s not a huge deal for me. I think the verse from GZA on this track is great.

Gain control, optimize the input channel
I set it relatively high for those on a panel
CD with the durable long-life cover
Very similar to no other
I seen a million try to set afloat, thousands that show
Observe with the patience of watching a flower grow
But one individual they forgot to frisk so
Now his pursuit is not without risk

There’s only one verse, so there’s not much to break down here. The majority of the track is taken up by ODB yelling “i’M gOnNa CrAsH yOuR cReW!” Even though it’s not exactly a highlight for me, I do like the song to some extent. I think it’s pretty good. It’s followed by a highlight entitled Breaker, Breaker.

I think the production from Arabian Knight is really damn great, and the hook from GZA is dope too. Believe it or not, this is the 7th track on the album, but it’s actually the first one with two different verses by GZA. The first verse is really dope, but he really murdered the second one.

The immortality of my fame is the measure of other's torture
Burnt offer from a flamin' author
The falconer who flies enough birds for the chase
Strictly excel in what is excellence with grace
The significance was not the vulgar applause of interest
But the feelin' that exit, completion of a sentence
With age and experience, my reason ripens
I strike on you vikings, slash like a hyphen

Overall, I think this is one of the best tracks on the album just because GZA’s rapping here is so good. It’s dope as hell. It’s followed by High Price, Small Reward. I think this song has one of the better beats on the album. The driving bassline is very infectious. This track feels more like a spotlight for Masta Killa than a GZA song though. GZA spits the first verse, and it’s dope, but then Masta Killa comes in right behind him with a much more substantial performance. I think his rhyme patterns are very strange, but not exactly in a bad way.

Without a doubt, it's in the heart
Where the best darts were written
Sitting at the window of the Grand Old Earths
Youths thirst for knowledge; I teach, but hold heat
'Cause some savage niggas are lost beyond reach
Broken homes breed seeds of no guidance
Left to wander the streets and experiment with devilishment
Violent felon offenders, supreme folders
One-twenty bomb holders let 'em off and explode

Even though Masta Killa had a much longer verse, I actually preferred the opening verse from GZA personally. They both did a nice job here though. The song is less than two minutes, so it kinda feels more like an interlude than a full song, but I still think it’s dope. The next track is called Hip Hop Fury. I really like the beat from Arabian Knight on this one, and the hook from RZA is pretty cool. Hell Razah murdered the opening verse.

Fuck them niggas you record with, I make 'em forfeit
Send a bomb rap through FedEx inside your office
Son, we build and deliver, came to build with the GZA
You heard the chorus from the RZA, ain't no real album spitter
Me and my street team be holding congress meetings
Audio/visual video treatments internationally speaking
Got managers scared to shop you, ready to drop you
It's the coming of that newest hip-hop, Christ's apostle

The second verse from GZA is pretty good, although far from his best in my opinion. It didn’t really sound like he was trying to steal the show here. Timbo King’s verse was nice despite its brevity. Dreddy Kreuger probably had my least favorite verse, but he still did his thing. I’d say I’m mainly impressed by Hell Razah and Arabian Knight, but everybody involved here did a good job. The song is dope. The next track I wanna talk about is 1112, which is a highlight for me. The beat from RZA is really nice; I love the percussion. The opening verse from GZA is great too.

Bobby said, “fuck spending fifty on a whip, buy equip”
Mental flip, he got a thousand tracks stored on a chip
Said he had mad toys to make noise
He split and separate drums like asteroids
The concerned producer sampled this question
Hit him with the beat for the answer with extra compression
My sound travel, it quickly grab you
And equalize the pitch up, until it have you

I didn’t love the second verse from Masta Killa quite as much, although I did enjoy it more than his performance on High Price, Small Reward. He definitely had my least favorite verse on the track, but I still dug it. The third verse from Killah Priest was really nice, but my favorite verse came from Njeri Earth. She spazzed on this shit in my opinion.

This long road I have to travel in countless battles
These filthy snakes with poison fangs and rattles
Kings, queens and pharaohs changed to cattle
Unable to duck the Devil's arrow
Singing that his eye's on the sparrow, mind narrow
Superstitions, horoscopes and tarots
“Hark Heralds Angels” and Christmas carols
Graven images hang from the mantels
Man-made slaves in modern day Babel
Brought from Africa in golden robes and sandals
By wicked thieves and vandals
Who manhandled us with leather whips and burning candles
And rambled through our castle, leaving niggas in shambles
Stole our gold and sold us like some Arab camels
We gazed, amazed and baffled as he loaded his ammo
Into the barrel and blasted out our bone marrow

She kinda reminds me of Sa-Roc, so that’s cool. She really stole the show in my opinion. That “ahh-oh” rhyme scheme that she was carrying through most of her verse was crazy. It’s definitely one of my favorite verses on the album, and it really elevated the quality of the track in my opinion. I think the song is dope as hell. Skit #4 is the only skit on the album that I actually enjoyed to some extent. Surprisingly enough, it’s pretty much just Angela Yee talking about why gun control is important. I mean, she doesn’t actually use the term “gun control,” but she gives some statistics about guns and how often children are killed by them.

In the United States, more than 10 children are killed by handguns every day. Guns are weapons. Don’t destroy our children’s lives.

Angela Yee

This is pretty cool, and it leads into the following track, Victim, pretty nicely. I really love the melodic production on this track from Arabian Knight, but I’m not crazy about the sung hook from Joan Davis. The singing is okay, but the melody itself isn’t anything special to me. The hook is fine though; it definitely doesn’t ruin the song for me. I really love the opening verse from GZA here. I think the reason I enjoyed his performance here so much more is because he was focusing on a specific topic rather than just spitting a stream of consciousness.

World so little he could never leave his block
His home bullet-riddled so he always need his Glock
He coast with his eye open, keep his metal smoking
Young wasted minds fiending on dimes, coking
Forgot kids quick to break rules and known to make fools
Out of many, down the streets we more safe than school
There's no diploma that can break you from the coma
Of a bloody war in the country, the youth hungry
On the corner hyenas amongst me
Yapping 'bout the stories they be hearing, always swearing
Can't even spell the shit that he be wearing
Caught up in the silk web of material

He killed this shit. The second verse from Njeri Earth is even better though; this album really turned me into a fan of her.

My residence is a city where army veterans smoke rocks
On torn down blocks, drug spots set up their shops
And cops watch innocent niggas roaming in flocks
Romanism in tops, papers and knots
Churches and liquor stores on every corner plot
To get money knots some funny niggas act like
They could pop Glocks and those who can't cop
Sisters giving up ass a lot, brothers giving up cash a lot
Babies struggling to become someone because their parent's not

This is easily one of the best songs on the album in my opinion. I’m gonna have to do some research and find out if I can check out more of Njeri Earth’s work because she murdered both of her appearances on this album.

Children molested within these pest-infested buildings
Seeds uneducated in these schools, paint on the ceilings
Is peeling off, but all I see is lost black babies
Calling, "please somebody save me, please somebody save me"

The song is dope as hell. Track 15 is entitled Feel Like an Enemy. I love the bombastic production on this track from Mathematics, and Hell Razah killed the first verse.

GZA came with the Liquid Swords killin’ you all
I'm the virus in the street that'll get in your paws
See me jumpin outta four-doors with my road dogs
All you soldiers want wars when you don't know laws
You be a rap fraud, knock you off the top of Billboard
Besides keyboards, only thing I love is the Lord
G-G, Maccabees, K-P be backin' me
Ayo Prodigal, niggas is charged with blasphemy

The second verse from Killah Priest is fire too.

I seen a phantom whisper, grim shadows, shows a blurry picture
Streets are filled with goons and bloody niggas
I seen my friend fall, clutchin' holdin' his stomach
Caught him off-guard, foldin' his hundred
It's like a life never ends, never know when it's comin'

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Trigga, but his verse was nice, and the closing verse from Prodigal Sunn was also great. I was really expecting GZA to spit the final verse, but he’s completely absent here. This track is a good display of one of my main gripes with the album, and it’s that it feels more like a Wu-Tang Killa Bees compilation featuring GZA than an official GZA album. This shit is still really good though; I love the beat, and all the verses are dope. It’s a dope song. It’s followed by Stringplay (Like This, Like That). Arabian Knight’s production on this one is actually dope as fuck. The opening verse from GZA was solid, although I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t kind of underwhelming compared to a lot of his other performances. The hook from Method Man is nothing special, but he killed that second verse. I mean, the lyrics aren’t amazing or anything, but his flow was butter. Meth has always had the best flow in the Wu-Tang Clan in my opinion though, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he sounded so good here. Overall, this isn’t really a highlight for me despite the song having one of my favorite beats on the album. I do think the song is very dope though. The penultimate track is entitled Mic Trippin’, and it’s one of the only solo tracks on the album. For whatever reason, I felt like Jay-Z would sound really good over the beat from Mathematics, and y’all know I don’t even really consider myself a big fan of Jay. The beat just sounds a lot more lavish and less gritty than I typically expect from Wu. It’s not a highlight for me in terms of production, but I do like the beat. The first verse from GZA is great too.

Stay in the venue, with the party promoters, life parolers
Half the crowd wild, 9 m&m holders
Apply boulders, smash your allied soldiers
Intimate footage roll off the cameraman's shoulders
Many will die for fame, moving like Leroy
Can't be one and the same, nah, that ain't b-boy
The decoy, scan this with high tech radar
Til' my mic strike, leave a state-size crater

I actually really like the hook on this song too; I feel like GZA’s delivery is rarely ever that energetic, so it was nice to hear him with a bit more fire in his voice. The second verse is really nice too. This track is really dope, and it makes me wish there were a few more solo tracks from GZA on the album. The Outro has another one of my favorite beats on the album from Arabian Knight. It’s definitely a very flawed song though. My main gripe is that GZA is once again completely absent from this track. Both of the verses here are good, especially that of Timbo King, but they’re just really short, which I guess makes sense since this is an outro. Timbo King only spits like 8 bars. I’ve never been the biggest fan of La the Darkman, but I don’t think he’s bad. He’s just not an artist I get excited about, but his performance here was cool. Honestly, I mainly like this track for the production, but the rapping is cool. It’s a pretty good song. Now I’ll get into the material I won’t be returning to. It should be noted that I don’t think any of the songs on the album are actually bad. Some of them just lack replay value for me. Pretty much all of the skits here felt really pointless. I won’t be returning to them. The Intro in particular begins with some dramatic ass narration that reminded me of something that’d be in a Busta Rhymes intro. The beat that eventually comes in is cool, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and it ends kind of abruptly. It’s a fine intro, but I just have no reason to ever play it again. The first actual song on the album is entitled Amplified Sample. I do like the song to an extent, but it really let me down in a couple ways. First of all, Apple Music has Killah Priest listed as a feature here, and I have no idea why because he’s not on the song at all. However, the most disappointing thing about the song is that both of the verses from GZA on this track are identical. He just spits the same verse twice. I’d rather have had him just spit the verse once and make the song really short. The verse is cool, but it’s definitely not so good that it needed to be heard twice in a row. I have no idea why the song is structured this way; it’s really odd. I hate when rappers do that. ODB did the same thing on Shimmy Shimmy Ya, which is why I never liked that song. I do like this one to some extent, but it just lacks replay value for me. The production from Mathematics is cool, but it’s not something I need to hear again. The song’s just okay to me. The only other track that I haven’t mentioned yet is Publicity, which, once again, is a decent track. The instrumental from Mathematics is pretty solid. As a song, the track is just a little underwhelming just because there’s nothing really going on. There’s just one verse from GZA and then the song ends. Granted, the verse is pretty good, but as an overall song this track feels a little undercooked. There’s not much replay value just because it feels kinda bland from a sonic standpoint. I do like the verse though. The beat kinda gets old by the time the track ends, but it’s not bad at all. I feel like this is a solid track, but it just doesn’t have much replay value for me personally. It’s just okay to me.

I enjoyed this album, but I definitely get why it’s not held in as high regard as something like Liquid Swords. There are definitely a lot of problems with it, most of which I have already mentioned in the body of this review. My main issue is that this just doesn’t feel like a well-crafted album. It almost feels more like a mixtape or a compilation. The entire Wu-Tang Clan at this point just doesn’t feel as tight-knit as it originally was. Why are we getting so many features from guys like Hell Razah & Killah Priest? Don’t get me wrong; I like both of those guys, but I want to hear from Ghostface & Raekwon when I listen to a Wu-Tang album, not Dreddy Kreuger & La the Darkman. GZA just seems way less inspired here. We also only got one RZA beat on this whole project. The lack of involvement from actual Wu members is the main thing that makes this kind of disappointing. I do however want to stress that I think this is a good album. There aren’t any tracks that I would say are wack, and I dug almost every song to some extent. Even the features were good for the most part. It’s just not up to snuff with GZA’s best work. I do think it’s worth listening to if you’re a big fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, but this is far from a must-listen album. It’s still dope to me though.

Favorite Song: Victim
Least Favorite Song: Amplified Sample


Grade: B

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