The sad truth is that he doesn’t have an undisputed classic in his own— or Bobby Digital’s — name
Definition of alter ego:
1: a second self or different version of oneself: such as
- a: a trusted friend
- b: the opposite side of a personality [Clark Kent and his alter ego Superman]
- c: a fictional character that is the author’s alter ego
— via Merriam-Webster.com
What is RZA’s best solo album?
Actually, back up a moment. Can you even name every RZA solo album?
(game show music begins playing)
Here’s a hint: there are five.
The first two — and three of the first four — were released under his alter ego Bobby Digital: 1998’s Bobby Digital in Stereo; 2001’s Digital Bullet; and 2008’s Digi Snacks. The remaining two that were released under the RZA moniker are 2003’s Birth of a Prince and 2022’s Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater.
During their rise to power, as RZA emerged as the Wu-Tang Clan’s visionary commander-in-chief, no one could have predicted this career trajectory. How did the man once known as Prince Rakeem and Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, who was known for dropping science in his complex rhymes and creating sonic backdrops that made jaws drop, morph into Bobby Digital, a blaxploitation-type antihero who was much more interested in vices than virtues?
“It came from a really good bag of weed one day. I was in my studio. My birth name is Bobby Diggs. So at the time, creatively, I felt like I was in a digital frame. I felt like I was in high-speed, where everything was digital, in numbers, mathematics. I said to myself at the same time that as Bobby Digital, I could use a character to describe some of the earlier days of my own life–partying, bullshitting, going crazy, chasing women, taking drugs.”
He expounds in The Wu-Tang Manual:
“Around 1998, I became a superhero in real life…Bobby Digital is the character I came up with for myself, my alter-ego. It’s mostly a chance for me to live out some of my hip-hop past that got pushed aside by RZA.”
He also went on to say that he actually bought a bombproof car and a bulletproof suit because he planned to go out at night and become an actual vigilante. This thankfully never materialized, but it was clear that the man born Robert Diggs had a lot of things on his mind in the year following Wu-Tang Forever and the group’s failed tour with Rage Against the Machine. It seems as if he were conflicted internally.
Now, twenty-five years later, it appears that RZA is finally ready to begin working through his apparent schizophrenia — after all, Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater was originally titled Bobby Digital vs. RZA — but is it too late?
The RZA is an undisputed musical genius.
The sounds he created for the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as multiple non-Wu artists, through the bulk of the 1990s revolutionized hip-hop and created an army of disciples that followed his lead, including none other than Kanye West: “The style I use, RZA has been doing that.”
The GZA concurs: “On 36 Chambers, he rewrote the scripture by combining kung fu, mathematics, Eastern philosophy, science, soul music, chess, love, peace, happiness, and struggle on one album.”
While he became a legend for his incredible production (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Liquid Swords, and others remain mind-blowing nearly three decades later), he was not content to remain silent behind the boards. He is all over Wu-Tang’s classic debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), his vocals appearing on a majority the album, including the iconic hooks for “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit.”
Moreover, he appeared at least once on each of the subsequent Wu-Tang solo efforts, unleashing memorable verses on “Wu-Gambinos,” “Assassination Day,” and most especially “4th Chamber” with his staccato rapid-fire delivery of lyrics that were somehow simultaneously accessible and impenetrable:
“Camouflage chameleon, ninjas scalin’ your building/No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children/A hit was sent from the President to raid your residence/Because you had secret evidence and documents/On how they raped the continents/And lynched the prominent, dominant Islamic, Asiatic, black Hebrew/The year 2002, the battle’s filled with the Wu/Six million devils just died from the Bubonic Flu…”
He seemed even more visible on Wu-Tang Forever, appearing on many of the tracks, his pen sharper than ever, culminating in his solo effort, “Sunshower,” which was a bonus track on the European release. It wasn’t just the Wu, either. Between his fantastic work with Gravediggaz (6 Feet Deep and The Pick, The Sickle and the Shovel), his guest appearances on tracks with the likes of AZ (“Whatever Happened [The Birth]”) and Cypress Hill (“Killa Hills N — s”), and his contributions to soundtracks like The Great White Hype (“Who’s The Champion”), High School High (“Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance”), Bulworth (“The Chase”), and others, anticipation for a RZA solo effort were sky high by late 1997.
We Shaolin fanatics may have been disappointed with the news that he would be taking a step back form all things Wu-Tang, but we understood that after more than five years of nonstop classic output the man needed a break.
Some of us even saw it as a blessing in disguise as it would allow him to focus almost all of his attention on his own solo debut.
We were expecting a masterpiece.
Bobby Digital in Stereo is not a masterpiece. While opinions on RZA’s 1998 solo debut that was released under the alias of a fictional superhero vary greatly, even those that love it would have to admit that it was certainly not the album we had been dreaming of since 1995.
It caught everyone off-guard, as Thomas Golianopoulos wrote in the December 2003 issue of The Source:
“His transformation into fictional superhero Bobby Digital puzzled the industry because the once truth-seeking militant seemed more concerned with prowling for loose women than producing tight beats.”
Being unpredictable is terrific, so long as the end result is worth it.
Bobby Digital in Stereo has some absolute bangers but there’s a lot of skippable material over its twenty-one tracks. Aside from a few exceptions (most notably “Holocaust”), the beats are comprised largely of keyboards and strings, his trademark layered soul samples replaced by a “digital orchestra.” As for the lyrics, they rush forward as if released from a firehose, a seemingly uninterrupted stream of consciousness largely obsessed with misconduct and wickedness for more than hour.
The result led to speculation on how the album came together — I remember hearing rumors that it had been recorded in a single night. While that’s probably not the case, it’s not a great sign if that sounds plausible.
Over the next decade, we would get two more albums under the Bobby Digital banner — Digital Bullet and Digi Snacks — that theoretically continued the story of the first album (although the narrative arc was quite thin in places). While each of them had some high points (“La Rhumba”; “Black Widow Pt. 2”; “You Can’t Stop Me Now”), they, too, felt bloated and self-indulgent. Digi Snacks, especially, felt gratuitous, as nearly every one of the mostly forgettable songs feature multiple guests from the world of extended Wu-affiliates.
Still, it seemed like RZA was enjoying himself. Speaking about inhabiting Bobby Digital, he said:
“I commit to the character; I know that the character has a reputation for doing certain things and saying certain things, so I can perform certain lyrics that I wouldn’t normally perform on a Wu-Tang album.”
It’s obvious that he enjoyed playing this part, particularly since it was such a different persona than the one that the public knew. In fact, at times it felt like he couldn’t let it go.
In the midst of those three releases, the world finally received an official RZA solo effort, Birth of a Prince, in 2003. Despite the moniker under which it was released, the Bobby Digital ethos was evident throughout, in the track names (“We Pop”; “Fast Cars”; “Drink, Smoke & Fuck”) and the lyrics: “RZA refers to himself as Bobby repeatedly and his rhymes are mostly in the Bobby Digital style rather than the pre-1998 style.”
That style finally made a return on 2022’s Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater. The project is produced entirely by DJ Scratch who, like Mathematics, sounds more like vintage RZA than the man himself these days, providing boom bap drums and scratchy, cinematic samples with kung fu film dialogue interspersed throughout. Being able to focus on the mic allowed RZA to be in rap attack mode, sounding as close to pre-Bobby Digital as he has this entire century. But at only a scant twenty-six minutes with minimalist production, some eyeroll-inducing rhymes, and several songs without a hook, it feels more like a prelude than a fully realized vision. That said, it’s still his best effort in decades.
Which brings us back to the original question. Bobby Digital in Stereo is probably the apex of RZA’s solo career thus far, particularly from a creative standpoint, but the answer is far from a no-brainer.
The harsh truth is that RZA doesn’t have an undisputed classic in his — or Bobby Digital’s — name.
Perhaps he is a victim of his own early, incandescent brilliance. It is natural, though no less unfair, to compare him to the man who did nothing but “make music, smoke weed, and cook turkey burgers…I didn’t come out of that basement for years, literally.”
He doesn’t seem very interested in being compared to his previous self, either. Bobby Digital was a way to release music without having to bear the full weight of the RZA name. Moreover, it’s clear his interests have expanded far beyond music, particularly the dark, gritty sound that turned Wu-Tang into a worldwide movement. He has yet to release The Cure, the long-awaited solo album that has been teased for years as the proper RZA solo effort, but has actually become the Wu-Tang version of Chinese Democracy or Detox, maybe because he knows that the reality will almost certainly never be able to meet the expectations.
He still has the ability to create brilliance out of thin air:
Yet it feels like he’s largely moved on.
In the two-and-a-half decades since he loosened his grip on all things Wu-Tang, he’s remained incredibly busy, becoming a modern day philosopher and renaissance man. He has acted in numerous films including American Gangster, Funny People, and The Man with the Iron Fists (which he also co-wrote and directed), scored others, including both volumes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and curated multiple soundtracks (Afro Samurai; Ghost Dog), before executive producing the popular Wu-Tang: An America Saga on Hulu. Musically, he has also expanded, still producing Wu-Tang Clan albums while also engaging in unlikely collaborations like Anything But Words as Banks & Steelz with Paul Banks, the lead singer of Interpol. He’s penned two books — The Wu-Tang Manual and The Tao of Wu — and even released Guided Explorations, a five-track EP of basic mediations through a partnership with Tazo Tea.
It would have been inconceivable that the “Ooh We Love You Rakeem” guy would become a multimedia hyphenate and spiritual leader, and RZA deserves all of the credit in the world for such a transformation.
Nevertheless, his output as a solo artist continues to be both confounding and dispiriting:
“No pop artist has been more consistently disappointing in the past few years than the RZA…when he followed his early masterpieces with a long torrent of trifling, sluggish and insufferably narcissistic material, the fans started wondering: What the hell happened?”
Sadly, we may never know.
Christopher Pierznik is a Wu-Tang superfan and the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.
2 replies on “The Disappointment of RZA’s Solo Career”
Could you imagine if Rza did his solo project around 95😬😬😮😳
That was always the dream. His rhymes, his beats, his focus. Give me an album of “4th Chamber” and “Wu Gambinos” RZA.