Another battle is raging within hip-hop, and for once it's not personal. Instead, it's a sonic war, a struggle between forces who want to branch out (and grow more positive-minded) and those who feel the music should remain stark and unrelenting, true to its bombed-out-tenement roots. Nowhere has rap's inner conflict been more apparent than on new albums by one of the music's most innovative producers RZA.
On RZA's solo debut, RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo, the Wu-Tang Clan headmaster takes that association to the next level by becoming a superhero: The album is the soundtrack for an action film written and directed by RZA (a.k.a. Robert Diggs). The film isn't due until February, but judging by the music, Bobby Digital is ''the B-boy hero for our times,'' a masked avenger who's either gunning down villains or fending off drooling women. Hence, the cuts alternate between big-bottom rumbles, growled by RZA's Wu-Tang pals, and macho come-ons that inject sexuality into the Wu oeuvre. (Don't expect a hip-hop Julio Iglesias, of course: ''You shinin' like a brand-new spankin' black Glock,'' RZA raps to his presumably flattered partner in ''Love Jones.'')
Even if Bobby Digital in Stereo barely hangs together as a concept album, RZA's talent as a producer and sound tinkerer bounds to the fore. On tracks like ''Terrorist'' and ''Unspoken Word,'' his trademark layering strings, tinkling pianos, and empty-lot shrieks over thumpy, bass-heavy tracks that sound like slow drives down a deserted boulevard is fully in effect. With its cameo by old-school harmony singers Force MD's, ''My Lovin' Is Digi'' achieves a gothic, melodramatic grandeur, like the sound of a Motown group transported in time to a ghetto in the '90s and wondering how the hell they wound up there.
But Bobby Digital in Stereo also reveals that the Wu-Tang car may have finally pulled onto a one-way street. The same thudding beats pervade the album, much as they do on Method Man's even more deadening Tical 2000: Judgement Day. The eerie minimalism that made the earliest Wu records so riveting has grown tired; after hearing the same repeated loops, you yearn for something akin to a song. This is music with a brightly lit ''do not disturb'' sign slapped on it. RZA claims Bobby Digital in Stereo is a side project and that his actual solo debut, The Cure, will be out next summer. But for now, in the battle of Spider-Man vs. James Bond, Spidey wins, webbed hands down. B