By David Browne
Updated December 15, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo

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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 two of the music’s most innovative producers, Timbaland and RZA.

On his work with Missy Elliott, Timbaland (né Tim Mosley) pulled hip-hop into more melodic, R&B-centric areas, an approach also heard on his first solo project, ”Tim’s Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment.” The Virginia Beach-based Timbaland prefers a sensuous flow (adding staccato beats to eliminate all traces of wimpiness), and he knows the value of letting arrangements breathe. The first track, ”I Get It On,” a duet with female rapper Bassey, has a clipped Latin-funk groove, a vibe that continues on a cut that cops the Spider-Man theme (”Here We Come”) and ones laced with chanting female backups and slow-jam, Morse-code beats.

Naturally, Timbaland needs to prove he’s hard and, to do so, recruits a bevy of new-school-rap guests. Nas and Jay-Z, who seem to make a secondary living from cameo appearances on other people’s records, mostly serve up de rigueur thug-life boasts and ”bitch” put-downs. (When Ludacris raps about wanting to fondle a ”Fat Rabbit,” he’s not talking about a visit to the local pet store.) But when Timbaland works with women, his touch blossoms. ”3:30 in the Morning,” his and Elliott’s showcase for newcomer Virginia Williams, is a hip-hop-soul diamond. Even better is ”Talking on the Phone,” a simmering jealousy tirade by Kelly Price that’s wrapped in a blanket of outer-space synthpop. Timbaland won’t want to hear this, but perhaps he should display his, well, feminine side more often?

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 gran-deur, 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. Timbaland: B+; RZA: B

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RZA as Bobby Digital in Stereo

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