fro Samurai, the latest project from Wu Tang impresario RZA, is cloaked in the fog of disingenuousness that envelops virtually all soundtracks. It is an album, a collection of songs that should—and will—be taken on its own terms. At the same time, however, its status as a soundtrack suggests that its “true” merit comes from its role in a larger media project (check your local listings for your favorite Cartoon Network programming). If only all interesting but scattered efforts from genre-redefining producers could vindicate themselves through cartoon tie-ins.
The Cartoon Network connection isn’t enough to enliven the Afro Samurai listening experience, but at least one other framing story deserves consideration: both Afro Samurai’s high points and low points emerge from its producer’s compelling—strange, but compelling—ambition. Since roughly 1998, RZA has tried to move out of the loop-heavy beat-making methods that produced several gold- and platinum-selling albums and elevated Wu Tang to international fame. Apropos of an individual who attempted to architect a world corporate empire on the back of a nine-man hip-hop group from Staten Island, he wants to have total control over his compositions, even if that means learning how to play all his instruments from scratch.
While most of the album is tied together with vocal snippets from the Afro Samurai series, “Take Sword” pairs a vintage Kung Fu sample that could have easily appeared on 36 Chambers or Tical with a bristling string section and a tromping, off-kilter drum line, before opening up into an echo chamber filled with a terse Baretta 9 appearance. One of the album’s briefer pleasures, but also its most telling: RZA is still best when tied to his original materials, which lend a dusty gravitas to tracks that can otherwise be affectless and aimless (“Oh,” “The Walk”) when they’re not choppy and gratingly repetitive (“Just a Lil Dude,” “Who’s the Man,” “Glorious Day”).
The instrumentals and the collaborations work well enough as a single unit, but RZA just couldn’t seem to resist complicating things. In keeping with the weird meta-demands that Afro Samurai makes on listeners (understanding its place in an anime project, understanding its place in an ongoing process of musical learning and re-learning), RZA attributes a subset of the album’s cuts to alter-ego Bobby Digital. After years of writing and rewriting the Digital narrative, RZA has reduced his ghetto superhero fantasy to an excuse for raw misogyny. Taken in tandem with RZA’s calls to decipher the “trick knowledge” of Western civilization, Afro Samurai’s Digital cuts just seem like a gleeful exercise in ironic detachment or willful cognitive dissonance. Is “We All We Got” (with its vaguely Tuvan murmurings and skulking guitar licks) musically great? Sure. But the elaborate back stories necessary to make “sense” of it and the goofy “So Fly” are just too much for one album to bear.
Despite the lingering presence of Digital and the choppiness of some of his new production methods, RZA, and Afro Samurai, shouldn’t be counted out. True, the Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig hasn’t produced a full album since the new millennium that can match the byzantine sublimity of Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, or Wu Tang Forever; but it’s not unrealistic to anticipate—or even expect—something next-level impressive to arise from his constant experimentation. For now, we’re still waiting.
Reviewed by: T.M. Wolf
Reviewed on: 2007-02-26
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