Though he’s widely acknowledged as the musical mastermind behind the Wu-Tang Clan and is currently receiving acclaim for his soundtrack to Quentin Tarentino’s film Kill Bill, as a solo artist the RZA has been less reliable but just as mysterious, hiding behind his Bobby Digital alter ego. On the surface, his new album, Birth of a Prince, looks like an attempt to show the world who he really is. It’s the first album where he’s dropped the Bobby Digital moniker and is going simply as RZA. The front cover is a photo of him looking straight at us, his fingers at his temples. On the back cover he’s praying, eyes closed. And on the inside he’s resting his chin in his hand in a gesture of wisdom. When the album opens with a sample of what sounds like some obscure pop/jazz song, with a woman singing vaguely mystical lyrics about it being a new dawn, you’re thinking that RZA has come off his Kill Bill experience a new man, with a sound, varied and mature. And then he comes on the mic dropping an obvious freestyle, and a pretty awkward one at that: “proceed with caution, you get your bean baked in Boston”. And you realize the track’s called “Bob N’ I,” and he’s still referencing Bobby Digital. And then you read in the liner notes that RZA didn’t even produce the track, that like five of the other tracks it was produced by someone else (Choco in this case)... and your excitement about the album is quickly zapped away.
RZA has always been a mess of contradictions. He’s a sex-and-guns-obsessed bad boy and a would-be Zen Master. He’s gifted at crafting the deepest, most soulful soundscapes you can imagine, but then half the time he sounds like he’s barely trying. On most of this album he doesn’t sound completely off his game, just uninspired, both as an MC and a producer. Several of the album’s early tracks are so-so freestyles awkwardly grafted onto beats (seriously, why in the world did he think that was a good idea?), and in other places he just sounds lazy. And the fact that such an innovative producer rhymes over other people’s beats on six of Birth of A Prince‘s 16 tracks is alarming, but what’s worse is how pedestrian most of his own beats are. Many of them slip past you without making much of an impression at all.
Once initial disappointments fade away, however, Birth of a Prince reveals itself to be not a wash, just a mixed bag. A few of the RZA-produced tracks show exactly why he’s as loved as he is. For example: “The Whistle” deftly puts a weird-ass whistling sound over a simple beat, to great effect; “Cherry Range” has a thick electro melody that sounds both hot and bizarre; and “Grits” has an old-time soul vibe that matches the childhood reminiscing RZA does on the track. And the two songs near the album’s end where RZA rhymes over tracks by Bronze Nazareth, “A Day to God Is 1,000 Years” and “The Birth”, strike exactly the right note of meditation and mystery. This is where the heart of Birth of a Prince lies, with RZA sliding from boast to prayer and back again, over R&B and jazz-flavored music that hits that same awe-inducing spot between roughness and thoughtfulness. Indeed, by the end of the album you realize that the rebirth referenced in the title didn’t happen until the last five tracks. At the start of “The Birth”, someone calls him “Bobby” and he corrects him: “My name is Prince Rakeem”. The fact that Prince Rakeem is the name he went by pre-Wu Tang makes it a riddle fitting for the RZA, who always seems like he’s out to make you scratch your head in confusion.
Birth of a Prince starts with Bobby Digital rapping about cars and guns and girls and ends with Prince Rakeem meditating on infinity. In between you’re in some netherworld between those two personalities. There’s times in that middle section when RZA flirts with autobiography and introspection, but he never reveals more than fragments about his life. That’s to be expected for someone who always presents himself as containing multitudes. The album title promises the birth of a new RZA, but in the end we’re left with the same fragmented eccentric we’ve always known. During the album’s high points I count that as a good thing; when it’s at its dullest, I think otherwise.