Happy 20th Anniversary to RZA’s debut solo album RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo, originally released November 24, 1998.
Let’s talk about Robert Diggs a.k.a The RZA a.k.a. the main producer and leader of the Wu-Tang Clan. And let’s talk about him in the context of the year of 1998. By this time, RZA had become the man behind the scenes for the biggest household name in hip-hop culture and one of the most acclaimed beatmakers in the game. Having already produced ten albums that ranged from niche classics to genre-reshaping masterpieces, there was this sort-of-not-quite need for a solo album from him.
Being arguably both the least gifted rapper of the clan and the most talented hip-hop producer in the world, presents a strange dynamic, especially while in the midst of experiencing peaks of quality, prolificacy, and popularity. After crafting unique sounds and styles for half of the emcees in his crew, it wasn’t supposed to be a difficult task generating a batch for himself and translating them into an LP. And it wasn’t, after all.
For this, RZA did two specific things, one that was to be expected coming from any Wu member and another that was quite surprising and/or disturbing for the hip-hop world. First, he created a fictionalized version of himself as a nerdy concept to loosely base the album on. Because let’s face it, Wu-Tang is for the children nerds. Secondly, he left the soul samples behind and focused on keyboard-generated melodies and rhythms. All of this guided his first solo album since the formation of Wu-Tang Clan, RZA As Bobby Digital In Stereo.
After an intro in German during which the character of Bobby Digital is introduced, comes “B.O.B.B.Y.,” a song with one of those annoying repetitive choruses like the one for “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ ta Fuck Wit.” This one doesn’t work as well as its precursor. Although RZA, now portraying and rapping as Bobby Digital, does manage to deliver some decent braggadocio bars regarding the fame of his crew and their toughness. The beat is simple, although effectively dramatic, suiting the purpose of an introduction.
“Unspoken Word” sounds like a bunch of random loops thrown together to make a raucous yet laid back background for the cartoonishly-gunshot-bucking-gangster bars delivered by this seemingly unbalanced persona. “Slow-Grind African” is a short interlude with a sweet female voice calmly singing over a monotone drum pattern. “Airwaves” follows another interlude, this time with Bobby Digital kicking Inspectah Deck-like bars over a synth-based bass line with raw scratches a la 36 Chambers.
Then comes “Love Jones,” a love theme sampling the song of the same name by Brighter Side of Darkness and “Star Children” by Mighty Ryeders. This track surprisingly delivers as the album’s first bona fide highlight, with RZA rapping about how beautiful the woman of his eyes is and Angel Cake singing a hypnotic chorus. “N.Y.C. Everything” is another strong track, a traditional hardcore rap song where RZA rides the beat well. However, his fellow Wu member Method Man shines the brightest here with a reference-filled, freestyle-like smooth verse.
By “Mantis,” you start understanding the vibe that RZA wanted to accomplish with the captivating layered production. There’s a rare eight-bar rap performance by usual hook singer Tekitha and a great closing verse by Masta Killa, bridging the gap between Shaolin martial arts knowledge and the Nation of Islam. Then there’s “Holocaust (Skillworm),” the first posse cut on the album, containing contributions from Wu affiliates Holocaust and Doc Doom, Ghostface Killah and Bobby Digital himself. Ms. Roxy delivers a hook that recalls her performance in “Reunited” from the Clan’s second LP Wu-Tang Forever (1997) a year earlier.
Serving to promote Wu affiliates without even a single vocal by the main character, “Terrorist” finds Dom Pachino, Doc Doom and Killa Sinall dropping decent verses. “Bobby Did It (Spanish Fly)” contains some underwhelming rap performances by Islord and Timbo King, a bizarre participation by Ndira, a nonsensical verse by RZA, and decent contributions by Ghostface and Jamie Sommers over an energetic beat.
“Handwriting On the Wall” is a shame, given that Ras Kass’ verse needed a more worthy beat (or any beat at all, that is). “Kiss of a Black Widow” with an outstanding performance by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, in his very own flamboyant fashion, is just what the album needs at this point to keep it going. “Slow-Grind Italian” steps it down a notch, but when the layered instrumental for “My Lovin’ is Digi” kicks in, it works perfectly. Ms. Roxy offers up another solid performance and the beat is grandeur, the atmosphere it builds is terrific. RZA raps much like in “Love Jones,” but his delivery is more delicate and lamentful. It’s the third big moment for the album.
“Domestic Violence” goes back to the same instrumentation formula applied throughout most of the album and Bobby Digital unloads all the misogyny he can find in his heart in a long rancorous verse where he “shits” on his “fictional” woman partner in the most distasteful way.
With “Project Talk,” RZA and Kinetic 9 exchange bars in a 24-bar verse rapping about New York boroughs and their characters. For “Lab Drunk,” RZA displays a rare example of his aggressive flow actually working and on beat, while bragging about the skills of his clique and dismissing the level of their rivals. The beat sounds like something that could have appeared on Ghostface KIllah’s Ironman.
“Fuck What You Think” shows RZA and his affiliates, Islord and 9th Prince, rapping about the inner dynamics of the clan and its masterplan, sort of.
The album ends with “Daily Routine,” where the character of Bobby Digital and Kinetic 9 sound like Smif-N-Wessun on their 1995 debut Dah Shinin’, talking about their neighborhood, their daily operations, babies crying, paying rent, “smoking blunts and busting shots” over a funky bass line in what could easily be a Shaolin anthem.
At the time of its release, Bobby Digital In Stereo was both disappointing and fascinating. RZA had already shaped the styles for five other successful emcees, the best group in the East Coast, the Gravediggaz side project, and dozens of underground crews, but he had yet to make a body of work where he could play the starring role. He had failed earlier in the decade (with his previous moniker Prince Rakeem), and now although there were some shortcomings with this album, he accomplished his solo mission.
He was now capable of constructing a cohesive project in which he didn’t need others to be the main focal points. He made this by himself for himself. Also, he now had an established solo career, which evolved in the future to encompass films, scores and TV shows, further solidifying his iconic status across hip-hop culture.
With layered sounds and sophisticated instrumentation that matched the diverse sources of samples and polyrhythmic patterns of his previous productions, Bobby Digital In Stereo expanded RZA’s horizons as a musician, while further redefining the concept of a hip-hop artist forever.