Considering RZA’s position as an icon of hip-hop and rivaled by only few in terms of impact on music in the last thirty years, his albums often fail to live up to expectations. The RZA name is built on his flawless five-year run (1993-1997) and has often flirted with greatness ever since. However, that run IS the best hip-hop has ever seen, it’s not even up for debate.
RZA’s rap style on the other hand, is often scruffy yet passionate and bluntly delivered. It suits the savagery of Gravediggaz or the Kung fu-inspired aesthetic of Wu-Tang, and never really reached those heights as Bobby Digital, his alter ego that’s utilized on solo albums. The problem with RZA’s solo albums is that they allow him to experiment too much. This diversification of knowledge and journeying into non-Wu-Tang-sounding music has allowed him to craft soundtracks for cinema, build an acting career and collaborate with all sorts of artists a hardcore hip-hop head would likely sneer at. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason Wu-Tang Clan hasn’t had a good album since 2001’s “Iron Flag”.
Getting DJ Scratch in to produce a RZA album is an interesting decision, and based on past RZA albums, a welcome one. Listening back to albums like 2003’s “Birth of a Prince” you realize they haven’t aged well compared to RZA’s Wu-Tang work, but more often than not, their best moments are produced by someone else. “La Rhumba” is produced by True Master and “We Pop” is a Megahertz beat, two of his more memorable singles.
The transition from grimy analog samples to clean digital instruments still feels like a divisive shift that dented RZA’s legacy during the 2000s, but it’s an admirable decision nonetheless. To shift away from what made you successful in order to learn and explore new avenues is probably something RZA doesn’t get enough credit for, and the primary reason has to be his middling selection of solo projects. 1998’s “Bobby Digital in Stereo” and 2001’s “Digital Bullet” still have enough Wu-Tang Clan members and affiliates scattered across them to make them feel like they belong in the Wu-Tang pantheon, but later efforts like 2008’s “Digi Snacks” were less successful. This DJ Scratch album, unfortunately, sits in this category of RZA records that feel too bland and basic to really stay in rotation. If you had the whole Clan rocking over these beats, you might get away with it, but RZA feels exposed over a straightforward boom-bap sound.
You can see the logic behind combining Scratch and RZA; the former often leans into digital samples but isn’t afraid to get grimy (Sticky Fingaz’s “Get It Up”, LL Cool J’s “Rockin’ with the GOAT”), and he has worked with RZA before on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Watch Your Mouth” (an unreleased B-side from “Enter the Wu-Tang”). I don’t think RZA is a strong enough presence to carry a DJ Scratch album (or EP in this case) on his own. You’ve got a three minute intro that will only ever get played once. “Pugilism” thumps yet grows irritating quickly; like constantly being jabbed on the chin it will wear the listener down eventually. A lot of the production here plods, giving everything a labored feel. “Fate of the World” possesses a strong hook and some heavy-handed philosophy from RZA but he never quite catches the beat to lift it out of mediocrity.
I like “Kaiju” despite the random musings in the lyrics, but it captures the chaotic nature of a RZA rap. “Fisherman” strikes out from the rest with its strings and horns, throws in some Kung-fu snippets like classic Wu-Tang and RZA leans harder into the ludicrous storytelling he excels at. I could hear Inspectah Deck murdering this beat or any more effective emcee that can use their voice to weave in and out of the kicks and snares.
Much like U-God, Masta Killa and even Method Man, RZA’s style is less effective alone. His flow services the production but never quite complements it and “Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater” is an ultimately uninspired, lonely experience that adds little to the already bloated Wu-Tang vaults.