Pro Tools serves as a hip-hop state-of-the-union address, with GZA spending a lot of his time taking other MCs to task. It’s entertaining enough, as GZA does it with an intelligence even those in the industry for years (Kanye West) can’t touch, but he would be better served focusing on his own skills instead. The RZA-produced 50 Cent diss “Paper Plate” bristles with the energy that the rest of the album lacks, channeling the dynamism that RZA described in a recent issue of Film Comment. RZA depicts an artist awash in various influences and in dialogue with those influences (jazz, chess, Kung Fu flicks—not to mention other hip-hop artists and their influences by proxy), in the same way Woody Guthrie captured the vernacular and politics of the Dust Bowl generation. Hip-hop is, in fact, a sort of folk music, and the best examples of both genres are the kinds that brim with the energy of something truly unique, when the artist is not bogged down by the jargon of a particular culture or subculture, but instead reflects its ever-changing environment. GZA’s lyrics are most potent here because they carry the force required for a compelling battle, as if he tapped into what motivated him to greatness in the beginning of his career. Likewise, the bonus track “Elastic Audio” serves as a condemnation of other MCs by example: GZA can freestyle better than most rappers can write, period. There are a few moments when GZA’s lyrics falter, detailing such monumental hardships as a “recession that is so severe” and a painfully vague “terrible loss”—not exactly the most compelling fare. But for the most part, GZA upholds his own high standard and Pro Tools is almost certainly a better buy than most hip-hop albums out there today. More than anything, it serves as a satisfying example of a hip-hop artist who has not burnt out or sold out his craft to be an industry kingpin (cough, Jay-Z, cough). At worst, the album serves as the base minimum of what we should expect from any of the “greatest rappers alive” after five albums.
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