On Second Thought
RZA - Bobby Digital in Stereo

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

In the event that you have the pleasure of reading an interview with RZA, odds are that you will come out with two differing, yet not necessarily mutually exclusive opinions of the man: he’s either a genius and/or someone who has a far greater capacity than the average man to remember shit he thought up while he was high.

In that case, coming up with the Bobby Digital alter ego was probably the most RZA of all RZA moments. The Wu-Tang Manual describes RZA’s reasons behind creating the super-hero: “he notices that there’s a digital revolution going on in the world, but the ghetto’s stuck in analog.” Fair enough. He goes on, “I decided to become Bobby Digital for real…I had this suit built for me that’s literally invulnerable to AK fire…I even had a good butler almost ready to go. He was gong to be like my Kato, but he wasn’t old enough yet.”

Hopefully the rest of us thought twice when being passed a honey-dipped spliff in 1998.

In a Rolling Stone article that was published in 1998, RZA set out the game plan for what was predictably called “The Wu World Order.” Method Man’s Tical 2000 was to be the commercial flagship, U-God’s album would usher in the new era of hip-house and Bobby Digital in Stereo was to be the artistic statement, even though “N.Y.C. Everything” was deemed as a possible smash hit by RS because “it’s got the hook up.”

We all know how everything turned out, but this wouldn’t even be written if the Bobby Digital idea was merely boring, like most of what bore the W tag from 1998 to 2001 (Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele and half of The W aside). But as RZA continues to disappoint in the present day, there’s a small contingent that holds the hope that BDiS was actually something that might have been ahead of its time, or even the last great true-Wu album. After all, RZA was doing chipmunk soul back when Kanye was doing beats for the Ma$e’s side projects, and Raekwon’s Cuban Linx still renders all of your favorite coke rappers irrelevant. Is it possible that we were the ones stuck in analog?

In reality, the biggest mistake RZA made in making this album was trying to convince the public that there was a movie that could be made from the album’s storyline, which is more non-existent than it is nonsensical. This implication turned what was otherwise an intriguing addition to RZA’s catalog into a softball for anyone trying to crack wise about the upcoming proliferation of Wu albums.

Lyrically, the manifold personae of Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah are present: ghetto scholar, sexual dynamo, 5 Percenter prophet, and so forth. Get rid of the “Slow Grind” interludes, core the middle of the album (save for “Holocaust”) and you have what’s clearly a platform for RZA to expand upon the erudite displays of his deep vocab that he flexed on Wu-Tang Forever. Granted, he’s no longer giving the pretense of caring for a better tomorrow, but tracks like “Unspoken Word” and especially “Lab Drunk” have the hard beats and dense wordplay that constitute “classic Wu.” When spitting lines like “you’ll get scalped like a ticket sold in Cleveland,” “confuse you like a 48-track mixboard,” or “bubblegoose feathers made thick as Carl Weathers,” it’s hard to believe RZA is trying to be somebody else. Although the alias does come in handy for something like “Bobby’ll fuck Grace Jones.”

In fact, if you’re taking the half-full approach, BDiS fits into the first line of Wu-Tang solo projects which constructed an idiosyncratic, consistent sound that played to each artist’s style. Liquid Swords was, in RZA’s words, a “winter album,” fitting GZA’s sterile, methodical style. Cuban Linx was properly cinematic, Ironman steeped in dusted soul, Tical was just dusted, and so forth. Had this album been billed under RZA’s name alone, it would’ve been seen as a continuation of that theme; street, but obsessed with technology, the perfect sound for a rapper who might still subscribe to Popular Science.

And while BDiS tells us more about RZA than Bobby Digital, it makes things perfectly clear as to why Wu doesn’t talk about women all that much: RZA’s take on gender roles is as based in comic books as any of his other worldviews. Beginning with a ridiculous attempt at a cinematic intro, “Love Jones” more accurately shows RZA’s personality with the classic come-on “girl, you shinin’ like a brand new spankin’ black glock.” It then rides its seductive, watery sample into a CliffsNotes version of Gods and Earths knowledge that makes a lot more sense once you read The Wu-Tang Manual. “Kiss Of The Black Widow” (sporting a pitch-shifted sample of Portishead’s “Over” from Inspectah Deck!) and the supreme screwed Motown on “My Lovin’ Is Digi” are the sort of plush sex rap beats that you might find Ghostface lacing.

And of course, the most “famous” track on BDiS is “Domestic Violence”; whoever said the title’s subject was never a laughing matter obviously never heard this song. Some say it even tops Ghost’s “Wildflower” in terms of misogyny, but Tony Starks, as is his nature, sounds like he was truly speaking from the heart. RZA himself almost seems incapable of holding in his laughter as he responds to a minute and a half of “you ain’t shit!” from what might’ve been the female role in previous songs for not doing what a woman’s supposed to in his mind—cook, clean and of course, read to the seeds. If there really is a plot to the Bobby Digital movie, it only makes sense if you take the “women songs” into account; “Domestic Violence” is the pulpy, faux-dramatic climax.

But upon further review, it becomes painfully obvious that the half-empty types are right too, and BDiS also contains just about every reason that the Wu would cease to be an artistic force. It marked a distinct turnaround in terms of what RZA productions would sound like. Thanks in part to the school of reasoning that figures playing Travis songs is more impressive than sampling, RZA decided to take up music theory some time around Forever. While that led him to composing his own beats, RZA’s reliance on keyboards carried over into the overall sound. You can pretty much separate classic Wu albums from the pack by the feel of the drums. Just compare The W with the percussion on something like Legend Of The Liquid Sword. Forget 36 Chambers; on this and most subsequent Wu work (especially Iron Flag), the drums sound like they were recorded in Howard Hughes’ kitchen.

In retrospect, we see the genesis of what really has hamstrung the Wu in the 21st century: Ghostface creating unrealistic expectations for the rest of the Clan. Prior to BDiS, Ghost laid low, only to pop up talking crazy shit about Magilla Gorilla and bubble baths on Charli Baltimore joints. By the time he dropped in on “Holocaust,” most people really thought he had completely lost his shit. As it turns out, he was in the process of crafting the free-word association that would be further expanded upon in the classic Supreme Clientele, but at the time, people weren’t particularly prepared for shit like “ten pogo sticks, Diet Coke meetings with the rich.”

And there was the creeping hint that, in spite of what RZA and his minions preached on just about every Wu skit, they did not escape the Puffy Era unscathed. As evidenced by songs like “Knock, Knock,” “Tush,” and that one song that said “bang that shit retarded,” Wu-Tang was becoming much more overt in their attempts at getting major airplay. There were seeds of this on BDiS; RZA had stated that he was in the mindset of making songs that people could slow grind to, and “N.Y.C. Everything” was clearly constructed as a potential hit. But it would become more obvious on the follow-up, Digital Bullit.

If BDiS is better than it has any right to be, Bobby Digital as a concept also lasted a little longer than it had any right to. Digital Bullit didn’t really do much to advance the D.O.A. storyline and acted more as an appendix for its predecessor than a separate entity. By that point, RZA had outsourced most of the beatmaking, and even though “The Rhumba” received a minor amount of BET airplay, RZA sounds bored with the beat, which sounds like the salsa preset on a Casio that Swizz Beatz didn’t already jack. It would clearly be the most inane Wu stab at the mainstream had Cappadonna not collaborated with Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat on an album that all but the most delusional of Wu fans have rightfully forgotten.

Everything on BDiS isn’t great, though: While it’s a more adventurous album, it also happens to get lost more often. Though Junior Reid was one of the guest stars on The W that actually worked, the formless dub of “Righteous Way” dissipates into billowy reverb and cheap MIDI horns. And I’m not sure whose idea of a radio hit “Glocko Pop” was, but it did little else but convince the listener that maybe RZA should spend fifty cents on a “p filter” for the mic before he dropped another couple grand on theory lessons. And let’s be honest: RZA’s sped-up soul samples may have predated Kanye by five years, but you can also anticipate the overly obtrusive, quarter-bar samples of “Gold Digger” in ear irritants like “Can’t Lose” and “Kiss Of The Black Widow, Pt. 2” which had Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s most unlistenable outburst and inexplicably got reused as “The Hilton” on Bulletproof Wallets.

But in the end, as with Masta Killa’s No Said Date, do yourself a favor by treating BDiS as a welcome addition to the first round of Wu-Tang solo albums. The going theory is that there’s the godbody work (Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, Supreme Clientele, Ironman). But rather than being the horrific failure that it’s easier to paint it as, Bobby Digital In Stereo is a flawed, but intriguing album that still has replay value to this day and fits easily into the middle tier of solo Wu material. Which is still better than 98% of whatever else you’re throwing in your stereo these days. Or maybe someone’s cooking up an analysis of What The Game Been Missing! as I write.

By: Ian Cohen
Published on: 2006-03-21
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