Anyone who picked up a copy of the single “Labels” from [Genius/GZA’s]( second album [*Liquid Swords*](, will remember the message printed on the sleeve art: “And finally…In the Year of the Wu: Genius/GZA.” Now, 20 years later (the album was released on November 6, 1995), the promotion proved apt.
[Wu-Tang Clan’s]( reputation as one of the greatest and most innovative hip-hop collectives was cemented with their 1995 output. They released three solo albums that were almost completely produced by [RZA]( (4th Disciple and True Master helped out on a handful of tracks). Each release had a seasonal tone and feel: [Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s](*[Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version]( *reflected the delirious enthusiasm of springtime in New York; [Raekwon’s]( [*Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…*]( burns hot like late summer; *Liquid Swords* sounds like bitter, disorienting cold.

In fact, the Year of the Wu actually began in November 1994 when Method Man released his Tical debut. RZA’s “Razor Sharp Remix” version of its third single, “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” featured a chorus by Mary J. Blige and a lyric where Meth declared everlasting love to his girlfriend. It percolated on radio for months, and in August, the *New York Times *called it the “No. 1 summer song of love.”

By the end of 1995, Wu-Tang fever peaked. There was Ol’ Dirty Bastard drawling shambolically, “Me and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers” on the “Bad Boy Remix” of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” Wu-Tang members could be heard alongside Mobb Deep, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Tricky. And finally, in the Year of the Wu, there was the Genius.

On first listen Liquid Swords sounded strange and astringent. RZA stacked keyboard noises until they resembled psychedelic Moog freakouts. GZA’s voice was coolly enigmatic, logical, yet passionate. He rapped on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” “Fck a screwface photo session/Facial expression leaves impression/Try to keep a sharp ngga guessin’.”

The lyrics depicted GZA’s Dongan Hills neighborhood in Staten Island as “Killa Hills 10304,” a hellish “Cold World” terrain where men lyrically “shadowboxed” while working street corner crack spots. Like others during the era, GZA used drug dealing as a metaphor for selling records. “I can’t fold, I need gold/I re-up, I reload/Product must be sold to you,” he rapped on “Gold.”

On “Labels,” he incorporated all the hip-hop companies of the day into a furious three-minute protest against exploitative practices in the music industry. “You Cold Chillin’ motherf*ckers wanna steal on a brother,” he raps, dissing the label that dropped him after his 1990 debut, Words From the Genius. Given GZA and Wu-Tang’s ascent in 1995, Cold Chillin’s dismissal of him seems like pure folly.