You know those stories where there are two equally talented brothers, but then something goes awry and one turns bad while the other remains good? Here's another.
Robert Diggs (the RZA) and Tim Mosley (Timbaland) are among the few modern sound makers who have a signature sound, not a formula. On new albums — RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo and Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From da Bassment — both step out from behind the soundboard and grab the mike, create jobs for members of their large and extra-dope crews and lay down music you might hear in a sci-fi flick: dense, textured, sculpted music, with all sorts of treasures buried in the tracks — the kind that the always-prescient Public Enemy used to make.
Timbaland is a relatively new legend who crossbreeds hip-hop and R&B into platinum mutations for sexy young Aaliyah and supersonic Missy Elliott. RZA heads the mighty Wu-Tang Clanempire, now perhaps the greatest group in all of hip-hop history. He takes you back to a time when hip-hop was musically — not politically but sonically — dangerous: unpredictable, acerbic, perilous. Dope. Tim offers kind, gentle music rooted in sweet, quick beats and R&B tropes tailor-made for those staccato-beat dances that are so popular with the kids. Tim's music won't scare your parents. RZA's might scare you.
If Timbaland is making futuristic funk, as many say, he's envisioning a bright, Back to the Future Part II, technology-makes-life-easier sort of world. His playfulness comes through in distorted little voices or babies cooing or rappers making scratch sounds ("vicky-vicky"). It's so cute. But like Michael J. Fox's career, Tim's Bio is inconsistent. There are club bangers like "Lobster and Scrimp," featuring Jay-Z ("Before, I never got no play/Now these bitches wanna give me more head than Sade"), and the undeniable "Talkin' on the Phone," featuring new hip-hop-soul princess Kelly Price. Then there's "Here We Come" and "Wit Yo Bad Self," tracks anchored, respectively, by the melodies from Spider-Man and I Dream of Jeannie. They'll be huge on the bat mitzvah circuit this winter.
Tim has some great guests: Nas, Twista and his crew, which consists of Missy, Aaliyah and Q-Tip — oops, I mean Magoo. But their flavor can't cover up his A-for-effort rhymes. In "Here We Come," he says, "She said this/And he said that/And he said that/Timbaland can't rap" — flowing in a way determined to prove them right — "But I don't care/because I make dope tracks/I make you bounce and wiggle and do this and that." His verses are often so silly, you think, "Well, maybe Puff isn't sooo bad."
RZA, however, could have been a legend if he'd never stepped behind the boards. His words follow their own rhythm into a complex, hypnotic flow. He doesn't create a counterpoint to the drum line, like most great MCs do, He vocalizes like a shaman, magnetizing you with his chants. In the anthemic "B.O.B.B.Y.," he drops, "You know what? Simply robust/The greatest crew since Cold Crush/This poisonous slang keep MCs avoiding us/Can't figure out the probabilities for destroyin' us/Your best bet, Black, is sit back and start enjoyin' us."
As a producer he seems a man burdened by genius, wrestling with his talent, challenging fans to follow him into his sound, a perfect fit for a Blade Runner, robots-are-taking-over-the-world future. Bobby Digital has the unrelentingness of good punk — more accessible than Wu-Tang Forever but full of grinding, dark, bass-drunk, anti-dance tracks. Singling out songs would defeat the purpose: It's one of those soundscape albums that just blend from one track to the next, like one long song with no sort of brightness or hooks for non-alicionados to latch onto. This is hip-hop for hip-hoppas.
The fatal difference between Tim and RZA. I psychoanalyze, is that Tim makes beats as if he wants to be liked. RZA produces like he just doesn't care. This may seem genre appropriate — R&B has long added a need to be liked into the equation, while great hip-hop has always borrowed from the punk ethos of seeming to be uninterested in the audience's opinion. We want music we can dance to — we need music that frightens our parents. If only Tim would be more like RZA Stop using his power for good Use it for baaad.