Concert Review: GZA at The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto

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GZA at The Phoenix Concert Theatre

Fresh off of the Wu-Tang Clan’s extravagant celebration for their 25th anniversary, including a massive world tour that had two stops in Toronto, the documentary series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men, and season one of the live-action TV drama Wu-Tang: An American Saga, it’s time we start celebrating the 25th anniversaries of those classic solo albums that followed the iconic Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). While their 1993 debut album is heralded as an all-time classic, it’s the execution of the Wu-Tang Clan’s five-year plan that changed music forever and saw their rise to stardom. After breaking ground with 36 Chambers, the five-year plan involved the rollout of several solo albums by the group’s members, allowing for each individual personality to stand out even more before reuniting for 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever double-album. One of those solo albums that’s often considered one of the best amongst the Wu-Tang Clan’s releases is the GZA’s Liquid Swords, and he’s started off his 2020 by going on a 25th anniversary tour for his solo masterpiece.

Released in November of 1995, Liquid Swords is among those first few Wu-Tang solo albums that was produced entirely by RZA, and showcases GZA’s witty, sharp, swordsman-like approach to lyricism. With a deep-thinking personality, it’s GZA’s innovative lyricism combined with RZA’s cinematic production that makes this album a masterpiece with longevity, achieving its platinum certification twenty years after its release. It’s one of the darkest sounding albums in the Wu-Tang catalogue, with a cold, winter feel to it that suited this January evening in Toronto. Even on a Monday night, the city would be ready to celebrate the album’s milestone with GZA, as he would be performing inside a sold-out Phoenix Concert Theatre.

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Raz Fresco & The 6th Letter opening for GZA

I got to the venue about an hour and a half after doors had opened, and while it was a packed house with the crowd completely filling the dance floor, the show was only just now about to get started. Kicking things off was Brampton emcee Raz Fresco, who happened to be celebrating his 25th birthday this evening. Over the years he’s opened for several Wu-Tang Clan members when they’ve performed in Toronto, although it’s been a while since his last one. Wu-Tang fans can be a tough crowd for local openers, as they can get impatient waiting for the God MCs to come out, but Raz Fresco was able to win over this crowd by performing some of his new material.

Fresco’s rhymes sounded a lot sharper than what I remember seeing from him years ago, as songs like “Closet On Steroidz” got the crowd pumped. Spitting bars back-and-forth with The 6th Letter joining him on stage, Fresco made sure to plug his upcoming album Marvelous Right Wrist while performing songs off of it. He’d cut the beat off midway to spit his verses acapella, making sure the crowd picked up on the bars, and closed out his set by turning the crowd up to the trap-flavoured “Cold Wave.” Showing the spiritual influence of Wu-Tang that stretches beyond the music, Raz Fresco would speak today’s mathematics before leaving the stage to continue his birthday celebrations.

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There would be a bit of a wait as DJ Symphony got his gear set up, but eventually it was time to bring out one of the key guests on the Liquid Swords album, Killah Priest. Some fans may remember being let down when Killah Priest was forced to cancel his own concert in 2017 due to a family situation, and this would be their first chance to see him perform in Toronto since then. Wasting no time, DJ Symphony played the hard-hitting beat from Wu-Tang’s The Saga Continues track “Frozen,” and Killah Priest came out spitting his verse. He would get right into acknowledging other artists he has ties with, getting the crowd to light up their phones in honour of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard as he performed “Black August (Daylight),” and was joined by Lord Fury of the Toronto Wu-affiliate group Moon Crickets to perform one of their collabs.

After rocking a verse, Lord Fury would revert back to hypeman duties as Killah Priest gave the fans some more familiar joints, performing his guest verse on the GZA song “Beneath The Surface.” He of course had to perform some of his throwbacks from his 1998 album Heavy Mental, getting heads to nod as he rocked “One Step,” and restarting “From Then Till Now” midway through to make sure he nailed every word to his lyrically dense verses. Killah Priest’s short set would be finished after one more song, but he’d remind the fans that this was the Liquid Swords 25th Anniversary Tour; we all cheered as we knew he’d be back.

While DJ Symphony said he needed five minutes to get set up for GZA, it actually ended up being about a half hour wait. The fans were still energized though, and ready to turn up as he played the DJ Muggs beat from “Unprotected Pieces” to bring out The Genius. With all the diehard fans knowing exactly what they came to see, the way GZA greeted the crowd was so simple and straightforward: “I’m back! Are y’all ready?”

The crowd erupted with cheers, to which he responded “Okay” and got right into the music.

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GZA

Rather than playing the Liquid Swords album from the top, or even letting the movie samples from 1980’s Shogun Assassin play out, they skipped straight to the beat-drop on track two of the album, “Duel Of The Iron Mic,” the booming bass causing a mosh pit to break out right away. GZA flowed precisely in-pocket over DJ Symphony’s cuts, as he performed his own verse as well as Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck’s. Starting at track two, they’d continue the album in track listing order for the next few songs, going into “Living In The World Today” with the crowd helping out to cover Method Man’s back-and-forth on the second verse. The moshing would continue into “Gold,” the fans passionately rapping along to the chorus, before calming down a bit for the more laid back “Cold World.”

Maintaining that Witty Unpredictable reputation, GZA would slightly alter the track list for this performance of Liquid Swords, skipping ahead to go into “4th Chamber.” While Ghostface Killah and RZA often make this the most energetic song when they’re together at Wu-Tang concerts, usually restarting it multiple times to get everyone jumping, GZA just dove right into his own closing verse of the song. As fans wanted and expected though, DJ Symphony restarted the track after GZA spit his verse, and got another burst of energy as Killah Priest rushed the stage to perform his guest verse. Bringing back memories of the music video, they paired up “4th Chamber” with “Shadowboxin’,” GZA covering both his own and Method Man’s verses, before jumping straight into the energetic anthem “I Gotcha Back.” The fans chanted along to the chorus with GZA, and would keep up that energy as Killah Priest returned to the stage to perform the bonus track that ends the album, “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).”

After temporarily leaving the stage to give Killah Priest complete space to perform, GZA would return and dive right into his lyrically innovative verse from “Labels.” Now focusing on songs where he’s truly solo without guest features, GZA continued with “Swordsman,” his voice slicing right through that dark beat. Even on these deep album cuts, the fans would continue to rap along with GZA, finishing his lines for him as he performed the narrative track “Killah Hills 10304.” The graphic lyrics were really resonating and made these verses all that more memorable, with lines like “he set bombs in bottles of champagne / and when n***** popped the cork, n***** lost half they brains.”

There was an elephant in the room, as those reading this years from now may not remember that this was the night after NBA legend Kobe Bryant passed away. The loss was felt all over the world, as fans in the crowd were wearing his jerseys, and GZA noticed one fan up front holding up a Lakers/Kobe t-shirt. GZA would take a moment to hold the shirt up on stage, hanging it up on the edge of the DJ booth and dedicating the rest of the show to the late legend. With the Lakers #24 shirt hanging behind him, GZA would personify Kobe’s values of work ethic, precision, and execution in his performance, making sure to nail every verse he spit.

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By now GZA had performed 11 of the 13 tracks on Liquid Swords, and by cutting out the skits, movie samples, and some guest verses, he was able to get through them with so much more time left in the show. He would fill the rest of his setlist with an assortment of deep album cuts and classics, starting with his solo track on Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers album, “Clan In Da Front.” He would get the crowd jumping again to his Beneath The Surface cut “Crash Your Crew,” having a dope back-and-forth with the crowd going as we all chanted along to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s chorus. With ODB on the mind, GZA would do a quick dedication to his late cousin, getting the crowd to rap along to the classic “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” While most ODB tributes have the song end after the first verse, GZA surprised us all by doing a spot-on cover of the second verse, even mimicking ODB’s voice and cadence. Shit was funky!

Before returning to his own solo material, GZA would do one more tribute to the Wu-Tang Clan, letting DJ Symphony play the beat from “Protect Ya Neck” and having the crowd rap the song. You knew this was a room full of diehard Wu-Tang fans, as GZA only had to fill in a couple bars here and there, but otherwise it was the crowd proudly rapping the verses by Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Method Man, U-God, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard before they cut the track. GZA would then perform songs off of his other solo albums, starting with 2002’s Legend Of The Liquid Sword as he got into “Animal Planet,” a song that follows the same lyrical concept as “Labels.” He’d also perform the album’s single, “Knock, Knock,” with DJ Symphony switching to a break beat on the second verse, and GZA masterfully timing his flow to hit perfectly over Symphony’s scratches.

GZA would continue to showcase the elite skill that makes him a legendary emcee, next performing the intense lyrical exercise of “0% Finance.” The song is about 100 wordplay-filled bars of straight rapping, and GZA rapped every word of the first 81 bars before the DJ-scratched “Pro Tools” interlude served as an end point. He’d then go back to his 1999 and 2002 material, taking his first verse from “Mic Trippin” and rapping it over the beat from Raekwon’s “Criminology” to get the crowd extra hyped. Serving up more rarities I had never seen him do before, GZA performed the title track off of Legend Of The Liquid Sword, as well as “Silent” and “Fam (Members Only),” songs that only the diehard fans would know.

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Next up would be more Wu-Tang cuts. GZA would rock his classic verses on songs like “Older Gods,” “Guillotine (Swords),” and “Reunited,” while also throwing in a cover of RZA and Inspectah Deck’s verses on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit.” The crowd was turned up the whole time, as everyone recognized these classic Wu-Tang tracks, and GZA took some time out to salute Toronto for always being heavy supporters since day one. Similar to how he did “Protect Ya Neck,” GZA next rocked the classic “Triumph,” barely having to say a word as the crowd passionately rapped Inspectah Deck’s iconic opening verse all the way through. GZA would perform his own verse, and would do a series of classic hooks over the “Triumph” beat.

Before closing out the show, GZA would perform an acapella verse, as the main appeal of his music is taking in the lyrics. It was a real in-depth verse filled with metaphors and storytelling that needs multiple listens to fully unpack, and was not the same verse about the Big Bang he had been performing acapella on stage for years. If we can presume this is another preview of the upcoming Dark Matter album that’s been in the making for years, it’s bound to be one of his best albums yet, if/when it does eventually drop. Going from his latest unreleased material to his earliest post-Wu-Tang solo work, GZA ended the show by performing the first and arguably most iconic track off of the Liquid Swords album, “Liquid Swords.” As they had been for most of the night, the crowd passionately rapped along with GZA, finishing his lines for him, and ended the night off with a bang.

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As GZA went backstage, DJ Symphony collected items from the fans to take back for him to autograph. You could see the way Liquid Swords has remained relevant, as fans brought with them vinyl records, CDs, tapes, and even had clothing signed by GZA. Killah Priest came out to sign autographs too, and it was overall a humble fan experience.

While GZA is known to take a more reserved approach when sharing the stage with the Wu-Tang Clan, his solo performances bring all the energy out of him, especially when its a sold-out venue filled with passionate, diehard fans. Very much in the spirit of the late Kobe Bryant, the execution of this performance was masterful, as GZA timed everything perfectly to not only perform 12/13 songs off of Liquid Swords, but also got through a ton of extra material. He was only on stage for about an hour, but it felt like an action-packed two hours with all the songs he was able to perform. The Liquid Swords 25th Anniversary Tour definitely does the album justice, while also taking fans through years of music GZA was able to make off the strength of that album, as well as touching on the Wu-Tang classics for the day-one fans.

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Special thank you to RAPSEASON for presenting this event and allowing this blog the cover the show.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. AS says:

    Just wanted to say, your write-ups are ON-POINT. I could tell you’re a dedicated fan, not just someone who went n checked out the show. I was in the building on Mon. as well and while it kinda felt like he was rushing through it in the beginning – along with the fact that it was jam-packed (I was on the right side, near the bar, and people were constantly moving in-n-out) – all in all it was still enjoyable. It was a nice surprise to see Raz Fresco, I actually thought his overall performance might’ve been just as if not stronger than GZA’s, definitely moreso than Priest’s (only because his mic was messed up, I couldn’t hear any of the vocals over the bass).

    Btw for the acapella, not sure if that verse is off of Dark Matter (it doesn’t seem to fit the theme, but who knows), but after wishing I had recorded it, I got home and after searching found out he spit the same verse before at a couple of shows from a couple years back, ex. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ojaCIGFqE . It’s definitely lyrically dense, I felt the delivery of it was more intense at the Toronto show, although I didn’t catch it all at the time (crowd was indeed pretty hyped that night). PEACE.

    1. syphersights says:

      Appreciate the love! Thank you for the kind words and support!

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