Business as Usual

Carnal knowledge: Wu-Tang's RZA maps out the inescapable tension between pleasure and Puritanism

RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo
Gee Street

Let's face it. The RZA didn't get approved for unlimited platinum-plus street cred because he's coherent. The Wu-Tang's sound sculptor is an instinctive, organic postmodernist, an ace practitioner of the aesthetics of obfuscation. Adorn your obsessively minimalist rhythms with enough ear-grabbing details to enthuse the cheap seats, encourage your comrades to supersaturate their rhymes with unfathomable in-jokes and mystical doublespeak, insist that your foray into the garment industry is part of some grandly furtive, quasi-political Plan. Pow! You've just constructed the archetypal pomo text--an intricate, indecipherable multimedia cobweb as open to endless interpretation as Finnegan's Wake, or, as the Wu would have it, the Torah.

In simpler terms, none of this Wu shit makes any sense without a deliberate leap of imaginative faith. And so it's only fitting that the RZA's long-awaited solo disc cloaks him in the guise of Bobby Digital, purportedly the hedonistic pimp-player side of the RZA's psyche. The Wu faithful discern RZA's desire to conceal his true identity as the mark of unending creativity. Skeptics note that despite the presence of women murmuring multilingual praises (one sighs, "Bobby, all you want is weed, women, pussy, and money"), RZA's Superfly incarnation is more believable in his zanily costumed photos than on disc. And those of us who wisely inhabit both camps with equal ambivalence welcome another solid piece of product from the most reliable brand name on the market.

As usual, what makes the occasional sameness of beats and rhymes worth wading through is a spate of unclassifiable set pieces. "My Love Is Digi" enlists the Force M.D.'s to croon, "Sometimes I find/Somebody/Messing with my pussy, my money, and my rhymes" while softcore orchestrations unfold hesitantly. Meanwhile, Bobby interrupts the mood with irrelevant observations like "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." And neither Dr. Octagon's gynecological fantasies nor Prince Paul's disturbingly pornographic comedy Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) could prepare you for the amazingly virulent "Domestic Violence." Over a beat that sounds like chains being smashed against a stone floor, a woman declaims, "You ain't shit, your mother ain't shit, your rhymes ain't shit" (and so forth) until Bobby springs to his own defense with a witheringly detailed, disgusted critique of her genitalia. Is this the embarrassing catharsis of a spastic spoken-word performer exorcising his hang-ups at the expense of his audience? Or is it just hysterically sexist sensationalism?

In either case, Bobby Digital brings to the surface the inescapable tension between pleasure and Puritanism (musical, sexual, and ideological) at the core of the Wu ethos. There is a need here to define militant, authentic black manhood in opposition to loose females that shows up in the Wu's essential distrust of both R&B grooves and eating pussy. Hence Wu Tang Forever insidiously casts women as skanky viral incubators, stalking the streets of Shaolin in search of upright warriors to infect and corrupt. Yet despite the RZA's inexorable death-march rhythm, his insistence that strings are percussive and basslines are textural reveals a soundtrack for seduction. Take away the rhyming, suggested critic Greg Tate, and you've got prime "baby-making music."

But while the RZA wouldn't be the first committed gynophobe to market sexual aggression and a distrust of women as street sensuality, he lacks not only the flow and charisma to pull off such an illusion, but also the will to make a credible attempt. Rhymes like "Bitch smelling like I ran over a skunk/It must be that time of the month" are standard issue RZA blather, after all. And a torchy reworking of "Love Jones," which compares his beloved to a Glock and a thousand-dollar bill, wavers between loveman satire, self-parody, and sexual neurosis.

But two upstaging cameos from his Wu accomplices mark the limits of RZA's carnal knowledge. On the high-stepping "NYC Everything," Method Man spouts sublime nonsense like "I'm supposed to be perpetuous" with a restrained assurance that stands in sharp contrast to RZA/Bobby's lame spew rhyming "saliva" and "vagina." As the Clan's resident mack, Meth proves yet again that being sexy is just something you're born with. And Bobby retreats humbly in the presence of the scatological enthusiasm of the Wu's genuine id, Ol' Dirty Bastard (er...Big Baby Jesus). "I ain't doin' it right, right?" RZA admits with an embarrassed laugh.

Yet to focus on a single Wu-Tang disc, or solely on its lamentable gender politics, is by the logic of RZA's Plan, an act of misinterpretation. Because Bobby Digital only makes sense within the overall Wu project--an overproduction of commodities masquerading as a complex intertextual work, a continual flurry of incoherence that insists that someday all will be revealed, a narrowly defined sound that promises infinite shades of meaning. If those qualities sound vaguely familiar to well-conditioned consumers, just recall Fredric Jameson's assertion that postmodernism isn't so much an artistic movement as the cultural logic of late capitalism. RZA's highly profitable urban gothic is pure mimesis, mirroring not just ghetto life but global corporatization. Make what you will of Bobby Digital. Just make sure you start saving up for the "real" RZA solo disc, coming to stores near you next summer.

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