In the past year, as seemingly every blogger and music journalist rushed to anoint Ghostface the greatest thing since Jello Pudding Pops (myself, being particularly guilty), they’ve overlooked the fact he might not even be the most consistent rhymer in the Wu. Sure, in terms of sheer charisma and personality, Ghost arguably trumps any MC ever, but if you’re looking for technical mastery and scythe-sharp rhyming abilities, the Genius/GZA deserves consideration on any list of the 10 best to ever grace the mic, a fact that he proved with a dynamic performance at the Key Club on Wednesday night.

Often chided for his tendency to come off a bit dry and even clinical, live, the Genius commanded the stage, as he towered over the sold-out Key Club crowd delivering authoritative rhymes in the magnetic cadence of a holy-rolling evangelist. Backed by DJ Muggs on the turntables along with long-time Wu weed carriers, Prodigal Sunn, Dreddy Krueger and Killah Priest, (who at various junctures turned in impressive freestyles of their own,) The Genius turned in one of the finest hip-hop shows I’ve ever seen, dynamiting the crowd with a balance of supreme confidence, stone-cold lyrical ability and a spell-binding, commanding baritone.

The Genius’ undeniable mastery over the crowd was so clear it immediately brought to mind RZA’s in the Wu-Tang manual: “GZA has a naturally dominant vibe to him. He has an extra power in his presence. Rakim, Kool G Rap, Kane–I’ve listened to them since day one. I’ve met them and they’re exceptional MCs….But to my personal taste, none of them could touch the GZA. I knew it in my heart back before the Wu-Tang, and I strived to be like him, not like them. GZA’s the only one with a style that instilled fear in me.”

Coffee and Cigarettes (and Chronic…presumably)

Kicking off his set with his verse from Wu-Tang Forever’s “Reunited” the crowd got amped from moment one, its energy never flagging for a second. From there, the man formerly known as Gary Grice lit into the fierce strings and magazine name-drops of “Publicity,” followed by a bravado rendition of “Shadowboxin,” so energetic and charismatic you forgot about Method Man not being there to kick his verse. Loose and relaxed, the GZA had none of the wooden stultified gestures you might expect, as he bounced across the floorboards spitting his fluid satin-smooth flow, never missing a beat, wrapping his voice tightly around each word, spitting syllables like booming cannonballs.

Four solo albums deep (five, if you count Words from the Genius), The GZA’s catalogue doesn’t have as many classics as Ghostface, but there aren’t any Bulletproof Wallets in his discography. And certainly no “Tush” plays for radio time. Just raw gritty, no frills hip-hop. Beneath the Surface is rock solid, as is Grandmasters 2005’s collabo with Muggs. Meanwhile, the Legend of the Liquid Sword is flat-out great. As for the classic, 1995’s Liquid Swords, I consider it the finest hip-hop album ever made, full of claustrophobic menacing production, indelible battle-raps (“Your lyrics are weak like clock radio speakers”), and some of the finest guest appearances of all-time (“Ironman be sippin’ rum out of Stanley Cups,”).

Accordingly, the Genius’ set drew heavily off Liquid Swords, as he ran performed most of the album including favorites like “Cold World,” “Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hillz 10304,” “Duel of the Iron Mic” and of course, a Killah Priest-aided “4th Chamber.” From 1999’s Beneath the Surface, came “Beneath the Surface,” the aforementioned “Publicity,” and one the show’s highlights, an ODB-less rendition of “Crash Your Crew.” Dedicating it to his fallen Clansman, Genius sent the crowd into violent moshing mob scene, heads, arms and legs flying frantically. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a hip-hop set get that rowdy since Lollapalooza 1994, when a bunch of yahoos tried to fracture a 13-year old Passion of the Weiss’ rib-cage during the Beastie Boys’ performance.

Slapping This Man’s Kufi is Highly Inadvisable

The set was short and sweet, just 50 minutes. Despite having Muggs spinning behind him, the GZA played nothing from Grandmasters and just two tracks from Legend of the Liquid Sword: “Fam (Members Only,” and another highlight, a fiery but smooth “Animal Planet.” In all, it felt refreshingly anachronistic. The rare lean hip-hop show not bloated by meaningless chatter, not wasted by innumerable weed carrier verses, no played out chants about “who really loves hip-hop,” or “what side of the crowd is loudest.” The elder statesman of the Wu at 40 years old, The Genius wields the energy and enthusiasm of dudes half his age, still seemingly thrilled at rocking sold out shows.

Indeed a palpable excitement loomed in the air, as the GZA periodically hyped the new Wu-Tang album on its way. With a performance that flexed his still awesome skills, the GZA proved that 15 years after first entered the game, he remains one of its most formidable MCs. Perhaps the last still relevant link to hip-hop’s late 70s break-dancing, DJ and graff roots, the Genius’ live show was Hip-Hop in its purest distillation. It was hip-hop at its best.

Also See Crock Tock’s Review

Download:
from Liquid Swords
MP3: Genius/GZA-“4th Chamber”

from Legend of the Liquid Sword
MP3: Genius/GZA-“Animal Planet”

from Grandmasters
MP3: Genius/GZA (ft. RZA and Raekwon)-“Advance Pawns”

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