As any Kanye interview from the past few years can attest, rappers calling themselves geniuses aren’t a unique breed. However, only one emcee has the audacity to call himself The Genius: Brooklyn-born Gary Grice, better known as GZA. His verses on both Wu-Tang Clan and solo releases certainly attest to his brilliance as a lyricist. But is Grice an actual genius?
Lacking an IQ test or a membership card to MENSA, we took a different approach in grading the genius of The Genius, running him through prominent psychologist Howard Gardner’s test of multiple intelligences. The theory, which posits that an individual can possess intelligence in a variety of categories (linguistic, mathematical, intrapersonal, etc.), goes a long way toward showcasing the range of GZA’s smarts.
Defined as the capacity to use written or spoken language
There’s no shortage of evidence across GZA’s discography to support his lyrical sharpness, but it’s still his 1995 masterpiece Liquid Swords that most clearly presents the full range of his strengths as an emcee. Take these bars from “Swordsmen,” for instance:
Light I shine, because my powers is refined/
Through the truth, which manifest through eternal minds/
Purified gases and masses the same elements/
That helped spark civilization classes.
As GZA explains in his annotation (yes, he annotates his own Rap Genius lyrics), “Only people who really studied supreme mathematics would know this the fifth degree—power and refinement.” Beg pardon? The fifth degree, as it turns out, comes from the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Elements, an NYC-based offshoot of the Nation of Islam. His reference to “power and refinement,” the fifth of the 10 degrees laid out in the NGE’s concept of Supreme Mathematics, speaks to the use of creative energy to seek truth. French Montana this is not.
Skill in the performance, composition and appreciation of musical patterns
GZA’s no Rakim or Jay-Z when it comes to technique, but he’s no slouch as a technical rapper. Take this verse from Liquid Swords’ “Living in the World Today,” which runs rife with internal rhyme and tricky rhythmic shifts:
And from that point, the God made a statement/
Draftin’ tracements, replacements in basements/
Materials in sheet-rock, to soundproof the beat box/
And microscopic optics received through the boxes.
The capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations
Grouped in with the rest of Wu-Tang as part of the East Coast hardcore hip-hop scene, GZA’s gritty, violent lyrical imagery no doubt fits the category. But much like Illmatic-era Nas, his nuanced tellings of the glamour and grit of the gangster lifestyle connected both hardcore and conscious hip-hop in a profoundly influential way (see Kendrick Lamar). The Liquid Swords vignette “Gold” struck this balance best, playing like a four-minute episode of The Wire in its carefully constructed tale of drug slinging, cop-stakeouts and turf battles. GZA never loses the humanity in even his most cold-blooded characters, displaying their complicated motives through the track’s closing lines:
[He] promised his moms a mansion with mad room/
She died and he still put a hundred grand in her tomb/
Open wounds, he hid behind closed doors/
And still organized his crime and drug wars.
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