When RZA brought Forest Whitaker’s morose samurai to life with 2000’s soul-steeped yet ominous Ghost Dog soundtrack, he continued the hip-hop-meets-art-house sensibility that Schoolly-D established with his chunky metallic beats for Abel Ferrara’s film noir cityscapes. Now that RZA’s moved up to Hollywood’s big time by scoring Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, he gets pretty creative with kung fu movie sounds and hard-bopping hip-hop beats that drive the action along. But Kill Bill is too shiny for RZA’s rough-hewn textures, and Tarantino is flip about his musical archive—the song selection on the CD smacks of condescending irony and leaves almost no room for RZA.
Instead, RZA gets to stretch on Birth of a Prince. The new album shows signs of cross-pollination with Kill Bill: The off-kilter wooden Japanese drum on “You’ll Never Know” echoes the sword fight between Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman, and the manic whistling of Bernard Hermann’s “Twisted Nerve” turns up in spirit on “The Whistle.” But what Tarantino missed about RZA—and Jim Jarmusch got—is that he’s more than just a rap producer who can put a beat to a fight sequence. He’s an arty type who’s as sophisticated in his own way as the director. Birth of a Prince grows on you as the sequencing reveals itself, each song a building block of an allegory about his spiritual nativity.
RZA was never the Wu’s best lyricist. The order and rhythm of his verses don’t tumble from his lips with the control and wit of, say, Ghostface or Raekwon. But RZA uses what he’s got—a gift for visual scene-setting and a low, preachy voice that squeezes the breath out of every syllable—to describe his transformation. On songs like “The Grunge” and “Fast Cars,” he appears as his younger street self, rapping slang-heavy about weaponry, speed, and drugs, over thugged-out beats. He recalls a more introspective side of his youth with “Grits,” a tearjerker like Ghostface’s “All I Need”—his mother, or Old Earth in Five Percenter-speak, fixes grits because there’s nothing else to eat and can’t afford school clothes for her kids. He doesn’t miss poverty, but a sweet, countrified blues riff gives the tune a patina of nostalgia.
Ever so gradually, RZA awakens to the theology of the Nation of God and Earths. The turning point is an interlude: A dusty record skips in the background as an older, gravel-voiced drug dealer tries to convert RZA. The appeal of this ideology among thugs is powerful. As in Kabbalism, the Nation of Gods and Earths (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam) attempts to impose numerological order on the chaos of black criminal life. Not surprisingly, once RZA converts, the songs get progressively more metaphysical and the tracks appropriately far out. Bobby becomes Robert becomes Prince Rakeem becomes RZA becomes Bobby.
The dopest production goes to “Cherry Range,” where RZA turns an irritating sound—the noise a car speaker makes when the cones are blown—into something beautiful. This is a key strategy throughout the album—like the oddly choppy “Koto Chotan” or the dissonant, offbeat sample of the Broadway tune “Memories” in “A Day to God Is 1,000 Years.” Here RZA stays true to the tradition established by the hip-hop pioneers who first scratched on vinyl—taking a mistake and making it the basis of an art form.
As his crew’s star faded, RZA churned out a few albums as Bobby Digital—strange projects with superhero alter egos and erotic French interludes. The burly frat boys who threw up W’s at Wu shows couldn’t relate to these so much. But along with his hipster fans, they’ll dig Birth of a Prince if they hear it. It’s as esoteric as you’d expect RZA to be. But it’s also more Wu.