Quite honestly, if you didn't know who RZA was when you clicked on this review, you're at the wrong website. The list of accolades you could string next to his name are endless, but among the most important would be "Wu-Tang Architect." Without RZA's beats, Wu-Tang Clan's "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" would have been a collective of great lyricists with no direction. It was his kung-fu movie samples and bugged out beats that laid down the concept and organized the group into a formidable arsenal of martial arts rap artists; and his slurred mathematical flow was one of their sharpest swords. That would have been enough for some, but RZA spent the next decade producing and rapping on a series of hip-hop albums - for his Clan, for other artists, and on his own albums like "Bobby Digital in Stereo" and "The World According to RZA."
Among the laurels and praises though has come criticism though, and not without merit. Early in his career RZA's beats had a haphazard organization that sometimes resulted in massive audio trainwrecks, as beats went off tempo and random noises left rap fans scratching their heads. Although the "demo tape" quality gradually faded while retaining the slick hip-hop style, RZA's vocals have always remained the same - challenging to follow. Long time fans are used to the distinctive speech patterns of Robert Diggs, but newcomers are often overwhelmed by the slang slung from off his tongue. As such the rapper who coined the phrase "Wu-Tang killer bees, we on a swarm" often felt the ironic sting of consumer apathy. His work on Wu-Tang group and solo albums sold millions, but his solo albums (no matter how acclaimed) always received a lukewarm reception. Some felt RZA was his own worst enemy by adopting the "Bobby Digital" persona, at one point even planning to make a feature film starring his superhero alter ego.
Thankfully RZA seems to have retired the concept for good, and with "Birth of a Prince" has gone back to his Clan roots. The "Bob N'I" intro gets things off to a good start. A soulful singer croons the depth of her affections and closes with the words "it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new liiiiiiiife forrrrrrrrrrr me." Without warning the track shifts to a pounding old school style RZA beat while he brags about his prowess on and off the mic:
"Who be the last man standin when I cock back the cannon?
(Bobby!) Your blast ass can search for Michael Landon
(And) Abandon ship, you can't penetrate
(And) My solar eclipse, you dickheads you got pussy whipped
(And) Sword of Conan with feet of Rodan
(And) Flow so cold I freeze MC's to snowman
(And) Turn 'em up in the sun to defrost 'em
(And) Proceed with caution, you get your beans baked in Boston"
"The Grunge" follows up with a mixture of loud noises, squealing tires, and dramatic loops that sound ripped from a TV show. On the second verse it breaks down to just the bassline and RZA's rap, and as quickly as that it's over. Then it moves on to the electronic "We Pop," which proclaims to feature Ol' Dirty Bastard but only has a few snippets of his voice in the chorus. Regardless the track is hot, and guests ShaCronz and Freemurda make acceptable cameos. This is followed by the mellow out melody "Grits" with an unnamed singer talking about hard times which RZA follows up with some hard rhymes:
"Four seeds in the bed, eight seeds in the room
Afternoon cartoon, we would fight for the spoon
Old Earth in the kitchen yell it's time to eat
Across the floor you'd hear a herd of stampedin feet
One pound box of sugar and a stick of margerine
A hot pot of grits kept my family from starvin"
Masta Killa's guest verse on the song blends in and holds it down nicely. "Fast Cars" takes things in a completely different direction. The singing on the hook is unremarkable, but the RZA track takes a simple loop of four single piano keys and layers it with horn stabs, drum beats and lyrics into a well-polished product. Ghostface Killah comes in for a verse, and between that and RZA's outro it may remind one of Wu-Tang Clan days of yore. "Chi Kung" is somber, built off a slowly plodding beat and long drawn out horns, and has an Eastern influence weaved into the samples like a fine tapestry. Both musically and lyrically, RZA is drifting through his own thoughts in an enjoyable way:
"Fault like crystals, mushrooms after the missile
We strike into the hip-hop bone, on the gristle
And my thoughts be the marrow, son, I'm the narrow
tube inside the gun that's released through the barrel
And the word's travellin lead, sped at high speeds
with the hole in your head, that filled up you
With the, knowledge of self, I dropped out of school
I went to the, college of self and I've contained my wealth
B-O-B-B, when y'all niggaz see me
I'm like Godzilla stompin over Mt. Fiji"
"You'll Never Know" is much more militaristic by comparison. It's a simply strummed chord and some fast drum rolls for a track, and not as effective as his other beats thus far on the album. Regardless, it's a good platform for guest Civalringz to spit some lyrics:
"When my Shaolin sword, swing at Nasty Immigrants with passports
To teach Man, Woman and Child, with the sword style
God, complete the presence
It only takes seconds to chop a nigga head on RZA records
But you a worthless effort, follow faster then leopards
I can't wait to return to the fuckin essence
Of hip-hop, yo, my shit chop constantly
It's over when my shit drops, son, honestly"
RZA knows how to live it up too. "Drink, Smoke + Fuck" may remind some of an old Beatnuts classic by it's hook, but it's got that definitive Wu-Tang sound as RZA gives up love to his favorite vices. "Whistle" is also aptly named, as a high pitched trill repeats in the background and is only broken up by a horn stab at carefully spaced intervals. As with many of the songs on the album it features various Wu affiliates, which allows RZA to orchestrate things behind the scenes without having to carry the whole weight lyrically. You'll notice this formula repeats on tracks such as the "The Drop Off" and "Wherever I Go," and you'll either enjoy these lesser known rappers over fine RZA beats or be somewhat dissapointed the frequently less familial original Clan is largely absent.
Still, you can't be mad at the sonic explosion of jams like "Koto Chotan" and the deep soul of tracks like "A Day to God is 1,000 Years." As the album draws to a close, songs like the car driving tale "Cherry Range" and the hauntingly beautiful "See the Joy" will warm the heart of rap and RZA fans alike. Musically, "Birth of a Prince" hits most of the right notes and only makes the occasional step in the wrong direction. It's also worthwhile to note that unlike some RZA branded albums, he seems to more clearly be the star in this presentation as opposed to a supporting player. For all the elements that work right though, a little more rapping by RZA himself couldn't hurt, let alone from fellow Clan members. Also, the album stands on it's own as a listenable whole, but no tracks strike out as potential singles or crossover hits; which may sadly limit his solo exposure yet again. RZA sounds more focused though, and hopefully the name of his new label is fitting - he needs a Sanctuary from which to infect the hip-hop nation with his uniquely viral sound.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 6 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 7 of 10
Originally posted: October 7, 2003