In the mid-‘90s, an RZA solo album was a long-anticipated pop culture event. The Cure was supposed to be the be-all, end-all definitive hip-hop statement from the architect of the Wu-Tang Clan – one of the greatest hip-hop entities ever. 1998’s In Stereo was his actual solo-debut and Bobby Digital was his futuristic pimp alter-ego, created as an avenue for the RZA to get all the hedonistic music out of his system and focus on his enigmatic masterpiece. Ten years, another Bobby Digital album (Digital Bullet), an official RZA album (Birth of a Prince), and many liner note promises that The Cure was “coming soon” later and we have yet a third release under the alter-ego nobody thought would last more than one project.
In a world where music is primarily bought, sold, and promoted through the Internet, Bobby Digital seems ironically out of touch. Aside from a few shout-outs during the promotion of Wu-Tang’s 8 Diagrams and a buzz single a few months ago (“You Can’t Stop Me Now”), Digi Snacks has arrived with minimal hype. It’s easily assumed that the ratio of fans that have knowledge of this album to those who actually know it has been released is quite lopsided; that’s a shame because this is the most consistent album in RZA’s solo repertoire. It may be short on the moments of sublime brilliance that were scarcely strewn throughout his other albums but it is also short on the scattered abominations; Digi Snacks is easily the most front-to-back listenable LP he has made as a solo artist.
It is a good thing that, as a producer, RZA has earned acclaim as the mastermind of the Wu sound, because his emceeing has been typically derided by critics. He utilizes probably the strangest cadence of his crew and his lyrics are generally impenetrable while attempting to rhyme as many complex words as possible. Conversely, he might have just as many cult-classic verses as any other Clan member; try to find a few bars that get Wu fans more hyped than “Ai’yo, camouflage chameleon, ninjas scalin’ your building / No time to grab the gun they already got your wife and children” (the opening to RZA’s verse on GZA’s “4th Chamber”). His rhymes are occasionally impossible to understand, but they always appear to make sense to him – a quality that, if nothing else provides insight into a mind that obviously works differently than most of ours. His not-quite-on-beat, congested, rolling mumble of a delivery has been a polarizing stylistic preference, but one that few can deny gives him extra character as a vocalist.
The two major weakness of RZA’s solo work have been his propensity for overly explicit, awkward, sexually exploitative raps and an over-saturation of guest emcees. Digi Snacks only features one outright sex-song – “Good Night”, which reads like excerpts from a romance novel with some preaching of eastern philosophy mixed in, is well made and creative enough to transcend RZA’s worst tendencies – and a relatively small guest list for a Bobby Digital LP. Not to say that the album doesn’t have its share of verses from obscure protégés, but it feels more like a true solo project than any of his other albums. Assuming that those interested in buying this album are not detractors of RZA’s rapping, this is a great attribute.
The sound of the production on Digi Snacks lies somewhere between RZA’s previous Bobby Digital work and 8 Diagrams. He finds a happy balance between dark and upbeat and keeps the complexities of his soundscapes relatively toned down without any apparent sacrifice in quality; the result is the most accessible RZA solo album yet. He does yield production duties to Wu disciples on several tracks and, somewhat unexpectedly, to David Banner for one beat. “Straight up the Block” employs Swizz Beats’ 2005 career-saving tactic of sampling acapellas from Jay-Z’s Black Album to form a chorus around filtered, screwed-and-chopped sounding, robotic RZA vocals. The juxtaposition is odd to say the least, but that’s better than boring; although the track might sound out of place at first, it manages to make more sense with repeat listens.
Digi Snacks continues to prolong the anticipation of The Cure by mentioning the mysterious project in the comic strip adorning its liner notes. At this point, similar to Dr. Dre’s Detox – to which RZA is also apparently contributing – his apparent masterpiece has gained such a level of mystique that, if it ever comes out, anything short of revolutionary of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back-type proportions will appear to be a failure. If The Cure proves to be everything RZA says it is, that will be an incredible triumph for hip-hop and definitive testament to the genius of its creator; but if quality albums like Digi Snacks are simply detours on an artist’s infinite struggle to live up to the nearly impossible expectations he has created for himself, fans should be able to live with that.
// Notes from the Road
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