GZA
Pro Tools
Babygrande
3.5 out of 5 stars

Courtesy of Babygrande

Thanks to his escapades with the Wu Tang Clan, GZA has established brand name. Fans know the product he provides: A richly patterned flow that has served him well for nearly two decades. It’s why the moniker “Genius” is still welded to his name, why a legion of Wu fanboys continue to follow his every move and why heads still turn when he drops an album at age 42.

Pro Tools is not a comeback or return to form and it has no sweeping statement to make. Instead, GZA simply does what he does best: flexes his verbal muscle and showcases once again why he’s one of the premier names in the business. On the chorus of “Alphabets” he raps from A to Z, beginning each line with a successive letter, while on “0% Finance,” he spins an extended metaphor about girls and cars (“Took her off the showroom floor, no money down / Near the Chrysler building in the heart of Midtown”). These are GZA’s old tricks, and he offers little new to the formula. But it’s all executed so well that it lives up to his impressive lyrical standards; with his rhymes on point, the only question is whether his assembled squad of producers could forge a fitting musical foundation.

To their credit, the production has its finer moments, even if it doesn’t match GZA’s legendary flow. “7 Pounds” is built on the best beat on the album. It begins with the sounds of a packed concert hall, with excited chatter giving way to wild clapping when the orchestra kicks in. After a mere eight seconds of swooning strings, the track jarringly breaks into a mad carnival dash to the finish. Detroit-based producer Black Milk is the man behind the chaos here, and a Dilla influence is on full display. Standing above the fray, ringmaster GZA drives the show forward in the closest that Pro Tools comes to a banger.

But compared to the strength and consistency of GZA’s lyrics, the beats vary. Sure, “7 Pounds” is fire, and “Firehouse” — a textbook Mafioso joint produced by the appropriately named Roc Marciano — is solid as well. The creepy whispers on the chorus of “Cinema” provide another great sonic backdrop. But at other times, the DJs fall flat. Building “Life is a Movie” out of a liberal Gary Numan sample is certainly interesting, but its effectiveness is debatable; when the 80s pop pioneer’s vocals break through over the chorus, they sound entirely alien. The beat for “0% Finance,” meanwhile, is so pedestrian it almost drags the whole track down.

But these are the outliers. For the most part, the production rolls along, content to play second fiddle to GZA’s intricate wordplay. And why not? Together with names such as Nas and Raekwon, GZA has written the book on MCing. It’s what makes his feud with 50 Cent — who he tears apart in the lead single “Paper Plate” — so amusingly lopsided. Though 50 is certainly the more stylish of the two, GZA’s technical skills reach another level. For those who prefer lyrical acrobatics to flashy hooks, Pro Tools lives up to all expectations.

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