Rza’s ‘Afro Samurai’ soundtrack stumbles

A great soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good, as Zach Braff and Eminem can attest. And a soundtrack can’t be critiqued without taking its film into consideration.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s Rza was hired to score the anime miniseries “Afro Samurai,” so there’s no question as to the level of excellence that the soundtrack achieves.

Right?

“Afro Samurai”‘s soundtrack doesn’t realize its responsibility.

Even with clips from the miniseries, the soundtrack sounds like a detached companion-piece to its visual counterpart. The ten instrumental tracks, good as they are, don’t do much more than call attention to the lack of unity between the soundtrack and the miniseries.

But the music is good. The Rza created a few gems for the project. Early in the album, Talib Kweli and Q-Tip are in top form on “Certified Samurai” and “Just a Little Dude,” respectively. Both MC’s sound comfortable enough over Rza’s beats to maintain their styles while conforming to Wu-Tang philosophy in their rhymes. Q-Tip comes off especially grimy with a violent verse that shines with The Genius’ 1995 swordplay obsession.

Speaking of The Genius, he makes an appearance with Big Daddy Kane on “Cameo Afro.” The two each deliver a classic-quality verse with the slow determination and confidence their careers have granted them.

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Not to be outshined by fellow clansmen or legend, Rza resurrects his misogynistic, violent and silly alter ego, Bobby Digital, for this soundtrack. Bobby Digital makes appearances on six tracks, complete with Wu-Tang and Samurai rhetoric and laughable punch lines heavily sprinkled throughout his verses.

Great as the album could be, the instrumental tracks hold it back. While a few of them have been mixed into full songs, most of them are forgettable bits of scoring meant only to be heard in the background of an anime. These ambient melodies mixed with the aggressive pounding of hip-hop drums distort the pacing so much that a good 60-minute album sounds like a dragging 90-minute album by the end.

The decision to mix the instrumental tracks in with the full songs justifies the “soundtrack” label on the album, but it also makes The Rza sound stranger as a producer than he actually is.

Even though the instrumental tracks slow the album down and sound odd between hip-hop songs, each one fits perfectly in the spots they’ve been designated in the show. The Rza’s minimalist and often avant-garde production has translated seamlessly over to scoring.

For every flawed decision made in the soundtrack, The Rza made an immaculate one for the miniseries. If The Rza could get his instrumentals and album sequencing under control, he’d have the best hip-hop anime soundtrack ever recorded.

Unless “Afro Samurai” becomes a full series and The Rza signs on to do the soundtrack and scoring for that, he’ll have to settle for having created the second best hip-hop anime soundtrack ever. He has yet to beat the soundtrack to “Samurai Champloo.”