The RZA’s Edge

Wu-Tang’s ayatollah once again drops his sword for some digital bullets.

"Shark. The word itself has an almost onomatopoetic ring to it, the sharp, lean sonance being closely akin to the animal itself. Say it aloud: SHARK. A mean, jagged sound, cruel and malevolent and severe in utterance."—from Allan C. Weisbecker's In Search of Captain Zero You could say the same of Wu-Tang Clan founding father, producer, and MC RZA, whose name is as pointy as Jaws' marauding dorsal fin, or one of those gold-fanged grills or spike-bearing rings he and his fellow Clansmen (the number ranges between eight and 10) used to sport, but which I haven't seen on them in recent years. RZA is, of course, "RZA-razor sharp," meaning it's supposed to be severe in utterance. It speaks to the threatening nature of the Wu in general, who landed on hip-hop in the early '90s like an angry alien species that had studied earthlings from afar via kung-fu flicks before dropping by to fuck with us, primarily through the deployment of a curious patois dropped over beats that combine dread, menace, and grime in such a pleasing way that you don't realize you're covered in soot until the album is over. And it also speaks to RZA's bellicosity, which, though he often shrouds it in a thick Staten Island–ized slang, nevertheless comes across through sheer force of will. Say it aloud: RZA. And there's another thing at work here: ego. Like all MCs worth their weight in records, RZA is in possession of an astronaut-helmet-sized head, stating on a March episode of the CBC talk show The Hour: "Being the abbot [of Wu-Tang], I've always gotta do things to test the faith of the students." Translation: He's in charge. Thing is, it's an assertion that often goes challenged by his many students, including, most recently, Raekwon the Chef, who bitched up a sandstorm over RZA's handling of the Wu's first release in six years, 8 Diagrams. But when asked about the controversy on The Hour, RZA said, basically, it was no big deal and even kinda funny. That was RZA's softer side coming through. As he says, "We come in peace prepared for war," a credo akin to, "Do you feel lucky, punk?"; it's a threat with a way out. It would seem to follow, then, that the solo albums conducted under his nom de plume, Bobby Digital, would reveal a chewy caramel center to RZA's hard heart. Not so. Despite the arrangement of cushier consonants in his moniker, plus a technocratic vibe that promises little more than Sunday-morning cartoon violence, the two records featuring the alias (a third is on the way June 24) are still RZA-razor sharp, though of a more scientific bent. In other words: Touch and you shall not bleed—you'll be digitized. The cover of the first release, '98's RZA as Bobby Digital, shows an illustration of him masked and armored, holding a verdant gat the size of the Green Giant's schlong. Behind him all manner of chaos ensues, from a van fleeing an explosion to two men locked in mortal combat, plus scantily clad divas, one of whom carries an AK-47. It's a sci-fi/blaxploitation/martial arts pastiche, and as such a visual reflection of all that informs RZA as Bobby Digital. "Unspoken Word" finds Bobby spinning his credo into "We can bust a shot or we can bust a verse or two," with a high-pitched trilling repeating over and over against a brutal bass line that rises and falls like an iron curtain. He also announces to all other MCs that "Bitch you analog" (a constant accusation throughout), and are thus too far behind to keep up with his technological breakthroughs. This is where his alter ego is most readily apparent—it's a reference to his accomplishments in the lab and the failings of others to keep up. The threats continue on the ironically titled "My Lovin' is Digi," a weird, cinematic escapade through his cavernous paranoia and pornographic proclivities. "Sometimes...I find/someone...fucking with my pussy, my money, and my ride tuck my nine inside my hoodie," goes the chorus. The line is something you might hear in an old Pam Grier movie, while the string-saturated production serves up some kind of space opera. His sophomore effort as Bobby showed up in '01. Titled Digital Bullet, it has a slightly more funky frame of reference than its predecessor, most noticeably on "Can't Loose" (he probably meant "lose," but whatever), a busty, booming slow-motion set you'd expect to hear played by an old man on the front porch on the bayou. "Domestic Violence Pt. 2" is his follow-up fuck-you to shit-talking bitches first heard on the first Bobby album, and features Big Gipp of Goodie Mob's guttural Southern style. It reaches backward to the first disc and flips it into a streetside declaration of the ongoing war between Bobby and his (presumably) many women. As both characters he wields weaponry, just of a different type. As RZA it's a sword; as Bobby it's a syringe. I don't know what he has in store for Digi Snacks, because, other than two tracks ("U Can't Stop Me Now" and "Drama"), Koch Records wouldn't release it in time for this essay's deadline. (And it ain't like I'm somebody special.) The former is a plodding and deliberate battle hymn, while the latter is so achingly positive and peaceful that it may well indicate a dulling of those sharp edges—but probably not. Bobby Digital, after all, views science like the Pentagon: as a way to destroy all enemies.

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