In the milieu of what seems to be a never-ending stream of one-hit-wonder cookie-cutter emcees producing assembly-line singles, returns Robert Diggs, aka the RZA, Wu Tang’s star producer, with Birth of a Prince. In the RZA’s first solo album as the RZA, he demonstrates his signature style that still sounds cutting-edge almost fifteen years after he broke into the scene as Prince Rakeem with 1991’s Ooh We Love You Rakeem EP.
What remains most impressive about the RZA is his ability to take what might otherwise seem cliche and make it feel entirely original, just using deftness and style. This is underscored by the way the RZA’s lyrical manipulation and delivery entirely overshadows almost every guest spot on the album. Tracks with featured artists, like “We Pop,” “Chi Kung,” “Drink, Smoke + Fcuk,” end up being the least creative of the album’s ventures. Their sound is beat and their content is on par with just about any other hip-pop track on MTV. But the RZA’s hyper, tortuous lyricism and deft presentation keeps them palatable.
But lest we should believe that the RZA comes with only party jams about “slugs, drugs and thugs,” Birth of a Prince flips its style on the RZA-produced “Grits” a more personal look at growing up in poverty. The song is a tribute to the food that he credits for having “kept my family from starvin’,” and it pairs bitter-sweet lyrical nostalgia over a soulful guitar loop and chorus.
“Grits” is the first of three standout tracks that exhibit the depth of RZA’s mind. The second of which is the smooth slickness that is “A Day to God is 1,000 Years,” which features a Billy Holiday-esque crooning and jazzy flute while RZA waxes poetic, contemplating celestial philosophies. “The pen is mightier than the sword as I face my worldly challenge / As the scale of justice and my heart remains balanced and neutral / My respect for all men is mutual.” And just in case you don’t think he takes himself seriously, the RZA has his lyrics printed in the liner notes, a statement that few emcees have been willing to make in the past.
Still, Birth of a Prince lacks a clear identity. One look at the liner notes reveals the incongruity of the project and perhaps the changeability of the man himself. The first line in RZA’s acknowledgements praises Allah, an odd statement on an album where he boasts, “All we wanna do is drink, smoke and fuck.” But the RZA, though not bashful about referencing his religion, shows no hesitations of maintaining his hardcore method of delivery and lyrical content. He drops choruses like “We pop, we brawl, get money ’til the day we fall / My Glock, my four, those shots through your bedroom door” in the radio-friendly single “We Pop,” the album’s least original track.
Yet the ultimate appraisal may be in the ear of the beholder. What seems inconsistent or hypocritical may just as easily be taken as multifaceted and complex. Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so surprised of contradictory elements within a man that has gone by so many aliases –Prince Rakeem, RZA, Rzarector and Bobby Digital. But this is certain: the stylishly compiled Birth of a Prince is a compelling journey whose contemplations hit as heavy as its beats.