Considering that Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs and Wu-Tang MC GZA have been collaborating since 1997, when Muggs was releasing his first Soul Assassins record, it makes a lot of sense that the two of them got together to create a full-length record. DJ Muggs gave GZA a copy of 15 of his beats, and two months later they met up in L.A. to record Grandmasters. Of course, the attention of the record is focused on GZA's rhymes, as it should be, but Muggs, the skilled producer that he is, makes his presence felt without being blatant about it, and provides a very good, dramatic backdrop for the rapper. Grandmasters refers both to chess and hip-hop, the two main topics of the record. The song titles allude to situations encountered in a chess game (many of which are briefly described in interludes by Russian-accented speakers), but GZA and the other rappers featured on the record (Wu-Tang associates RZA, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Prodigal Sunn, and Cypress Hill's Sen Dog) use the titles as interpretations of life. As if this weren't obvious enough, GZA himself explains that his love of chess is due to "the great high" he gets from "the movement...war, capturing, thinking, strategy, planning. It's music, it's hip-hop, it's sports, it's life, it's reality." It's a kind of concept album, with the two "grandmasters" of the game explaining the rules to everyone else. Structurally, the record starts out aggressively and strong, with songs like "Exploitation of Mistakes" (with GZA giving an almost news-report delivery) and "General Principles" introducing the ground rules and common errors. As the album moves along, the songs smooth out a little; the initial anxiety has turned into deliberation and strategy. In "Queen's Gambit," GZA, with some ingenuous use of NFL metaphors, seduces -- or perhaps is seduced by -- the most powerful player on the board. The end becomes apparent in the dramatic, synthesized-string-driven "Unprotected Pieces," about the "very unforgiving environment" of the rap music industry. "Illusory Protection" exposes the lack of talent in many MCs ("most of them be swinging wild and then drop the bat") and the final blow seems inevitable. But GZA is too smart to have things end so easily. Chess, life, and hip-hop are much more complicated than that. The closer, "Smothered Mate," isn't celebrating a win. It's about pain and torture and people who "Draw pistols to resolve issues/It give them a sense of closure to expose the brain tissue." This is no victory song; this is violent reality. Grandmasters is a brilliantly executed and complex record that effectively shows off the skills of the participants, and is definitely not something that should be taken as a game.
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AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown