GZA avoids the grandiose releases of certain Wu-Tang cohorts — like Method Man’s spectacular solo failures or Ghostface’s uneven biannual twenty-track epics — and co-founding crony RZA’s extraterrestrial excursions. Instead, GZA quietly balances exceptional rap skills with stylized Wu-Tang strangeness. His 1995 classic, Liquid Swords, thrilled fans of the latter with kung fu samples, Five Percenters mythologistics and bounteous RZA production, while albums since 1999’s Beneath The Surface, for better or worse, toy with hip-hop’s prevailing trends. Still, GZA rarely capitulates to the stultifying tyranny of rap’s warring factions, recording his inventive, effortless rhymes on some peaceful planet in the DMZ between the galaxies of commercial compromise and indie obscurantism, a planet all his own that still flies the Wu’s iron flag proudly (if more discreetly).
This sixth GZA album only features two RZA beats (and a terrific verse on the awesome ‘Pencils’), but they’re standouts on an already outstanding album. The first single, the 50 Cent-dissing ‘Paper Plate’ (does 50 even merit dissing anymore?), is a moody gem with GZA letting loose for nearly three uninterrupted minutes while RZA layers then peels off various drum, synth and chime samples. Other producers also do good by GZA. Jose “Choco” Reynoso’s pumping guitar and brass match the MC’s breathless cross-country car-themed narrative on the thrilling ‘0% Finance’, and Bronze Nazareth’s booming, nostalgic ‘Groundbreaking’ finds GZA rhyming with his son Justice Kareem. The soulful ‘Alphabets’ and chopped up ‘7 Pounds’ keep the album’s first half exciting, the varied soundscape providing a lyrical lab wherein GZA makes good on each successive experiment.
Pro Tools’ second half slows noticeably with a few merely decent tracks, but a sudden shift makes for a triumphant ending built around two movie-themed tracks. First, GZA applies his storytelling skills to the horror genre on the whispered creeper ‘Cinema’, then RZA closes things (save a serviceable live bonus track) with ‘Life is a Movie’, a dramatic, steadily mounting rock mash-up. Like some of its best songs, Pro Tools is short and satisfying, proof for those who’ll venture to GZA’s isolated planet that he’s among the universe’s most consistently great MCs.