Afro Samurai

(Koch; 2007)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

What does it mean to be the RZA? I mean now, in 2007. In theory, his career as a pop superstar ended a decade ago, and now he’s comfortably settled behind the scenes. A nice enough end to the story, but as far as his peers go, Primo’s keeping Christina horny, the Neptunes just released the best album they’ll ever touch, and Timbaland’s knee-deep in JT’s wingman ass. (Swizz Beats is currently accepting employers.) The formula for continued relevance for aging 90s hip-pop producers seems to be: find a good-looking kid to produce for, stand in the background of the videos, cash checks. But all the RZA’s cronies bailed, and because GZA’s with Muggs now, because Ghost and Masta Killa opt for grab bags of undie beatmakers, or because Method Man fell off completely, landing somewhere above Carrot Top but below David Hasselhoff in the race for a VH1 series, the RZA is left sans protégé. Sure, the W still stands, smiting, untarnished, coal-black and sparking, but the flare-up of solo promise suggested by those first few years has fizzled, the leftover enthusiasm funneled toward Ghostface alone, like he’s the only flag-bearer left.

So the Rizz stands alone… but is he dignified or depantsed? Did his dream run away without him? Is soundtrack work just that -- work, gainful employment for an aging man with an impossibly narrow skill set? It’s hard to say, exactly. In a way, the RZA was always just soundtracking the stoned-stupid in-jokes of a peculiarly attuned group of friends; just-so-happened that those attempts at popularization produced an entirely singular vision. The problem with a record like Afro Samurai isn’t that it lacks in any particular department. Certainly, there are moments of inspiration, like the peeled-raw Tarantino dust of “Who Is Tha Man,” and, to be sure, a guestlist boasting GZA, Q-Tip and Big Daddy Kane isn’t deficient. No, Afro Samurai stumbles primarily in what it has, namely, an antecedent, the actual animated series Afro Samurai. Now, I haven’t seen Afro Samurai (full disclosure: it’s preordered on Amazon), but the mere fact that it exists puts the RZA at a disadvantage. There was no real source text for the Wu, so vagaries felt like foreshadowing, and inconsistencies like expansion. Afro Samurai has something to adhere to. Thus binds the RZA.

So something called “Afro’s Father Fight,” which is only ninety seconds of wah pedal, may be bloodcurdlingly understated in context, but as precursor to a cheeky sleaze-pop slow jam like “Oh,” itself an utter dud, the track is momentum castration. If anyone ought to be able to weave cinema and hip-hop, it’s this man. The RZA was, after all, the only producer who really used the hip-hop skit -- the clipped threats, the sword’s clang, the minute and a half of rambling dialogue -- effectively. Prince Paul, inventor, used the skit more inventively, of course, but act like you don’t skip half of De La Soul is Dead (1991) today. The RZA made skits part of the actual fabric of the musical experience in a way no one else managed (the snare cracks echoing against the fuzzed-out kung-fu crackle, and so on). This capacity certainly pervades Afro Samurai, in that the voice clips are placed effectively. The esoteric, lethal phone conversation that closes “Tears of a Samurai” almost makes the snoozer worthwhile, and segues well into the Shogun Assassin clip that opens “Take Sword Pt. 1.”

But, of course, this is just the problem, just what makes this album vaguely worthwhile and vaguely useless: RZA’s still sampling Shogun Assassin, ten years later. Like Li Mu Bai, he knows no other path; the RZA makes records that sound like the RZA made them, and even though he’s proven decisively that his beatbox still works when not set on “dusty” and “menacing” (witness the “bombastic” and “menacing” Ghostface cut “Run”), he can’t not do what he doesn’t want to not do, and vice versa. He is the RZA, not Afro Samurai, and when the record removes the “soundtrack” pretense, it lurches zombie-like awake. Most of this occurs on the four inexplicable Bobby Digital “bonus” tracks, which, as usual, find the RZA’s production at its most baleful, his flow at its most truncated and puerile (“Like Eddie Munster, I keep a dragon under my stairs / Plus a gun in my hat / Ain’t no runnin’ from that”). Still, this appendix works, in the strange way that such efforts tend to work for this strange man. In a sense, such plainly “good” tracks stick out unpleasantly, and deserve their segregation at the end of the tracklisting. This is, after all, an album of ephemera, and as such it is hopelessly ephemeral. I’ve already forgotten how it started.