Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II | Album Review

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II
Release Date: September 8th, 2009

Note: This album was reviewed in spurts over the past month. :D

As I did with my write-up for The Blueprint 3, I’d like to begin this review by laying out some ground rules and delineate what my expectations were for Raekwon’s new album. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II, as we know, is a follow-up to The Chef’s 1995 opus. Many hold that album alongside the greats like Illmatic as the definitive gold standard for a solid, start-to-finish classic. I didn’t hear too many people complaining when Nas dropped Stillmatic in 2001. It was a great semi-follow-up to his 1994 debut: a solid 4.5 star effort in my book – not a perfect album. Clearly, Nas wasn’t trying to totally emulate Illmatic (it wasn’t called Illmatic II), and I think that point was made for most if not all listeners. Raekwon’s new album, however, like Jay’s latest, is specifically labeled a sequel. Thus it aims to fill some pretty big shoes.

From the outset, did/do I expect OB4CLII to be as good as (or better than) his 1995 debut? No. That’s impossible. Snoop can’t redo Doggystyle; Nas can’t redo Illmatic; Jay-Z can’t redo Reasonable Doubt; Mobb Deep can’t redo The Infamous (not their debut, I know, but you get my point). I don’t expect OB4CLII to be better than OB4CL. I do, however, expect it to be a respectable effort – unlike the Jiggaman’s inconsistent mess that is The Blueprint 3. Here’s what I expect from a Raekwon album: gritty narratives with memorable one-liners and creative rhyme schemes over sinister beats. Overall, just a solid album that’ll secure a spot on the various ‘Albums of 2009’ lists soon to hit a website or magazine near you; nothing more, nothing less. Does he deliver? Let’s see…

01. Return of the North Star (featuring Popa Wu) (Produced by BT; Icewater Productions)

I’ve never much cared for Popa Wu as a participant on Wu-Tang tracks. In fact, I find his banter to be a bit… boring. But I understand his relationship with the Clan and I realized that this was the best possible way to kick-start the album. For starters, it’s fitting if not for the fact that it segments perfectly from the ending of the first album, but because it offers a way for Raekwon to be introduced (or rather re-introduced) by a familiar voice. Kinda/sorta like what Pain in da Ass used to do for early Jay-Z albums. And after all, Popa Wu is dishing Five Percent-brand knowledge and weaving jokes here and there in the process. No complaints. Raekwon steps in at around the 2:00 mark like a headliner following an opening act. He’s ready to begin…

02. House of Flying Daggers (featuring Inspectah Deck, GZA, Ghostface Killah & Method Man) (Produced by J Dilla)

…with a Wu-Banga that leaves you no warning or preparation to protect ya neck. Full of kung fu imagery and dagger-like snare stabs, Raekwon’s choice in resurrecting and unleashing this J Dilla instrumental is, in one word, brilliant. It’s almost as if Dilla, with visions of 2009, prepared this beat in advance to become a murderous rampage of lyrical Wu swords. Every emcee comes correct with threat-filled verses, and Inspectah Deck’s placement as the track’s first rhymeslinger is reminiscent of previous Wu anthems like “Protect Ya Neck” and “Triumph”.

03. Sonny’s Missing (Produced by Pete Rock)

If you’re a Pete Rock fan, you’ve actually heard this beat before (on his 2008 album NY’s Finest). At first I thought this track’s title might be a reference to The Godfather, but given the sample they used, I guess I was wrong. I particularly like the last portion of the sample’s loop as it gives off a noir-like vibe, perfectly matching with Raekwon’s bloody underworld narration. “Sonny’s Missing” is reminiscent of that early scene in most gangster flicks that takes you by surprise, either by thoroughly-built suspense (the horse’s head in The Godfather) or stunning displays of hyper-violence (the fate of Angel Fernández in Scarface).

04. Pyrex Vision (Produced by Marley Marl)

My first thought: Damn, “Jewelz” all over again? Thought number two: “Kilo”, the R.A.G.U. collaboration from Ghostface’s Fishscale. “Kilo” and “Pyrex Vision” share not just the same topic, but are also unique in their use of peculiar, off-kilter sample sources. Marley Marl’s vision of a smooth, buoyant beat with toned-down drums compliment The Chef as he shares his recipe, breaking down the ingredients to his cooked coke concoctions.

05. Cold Outside (featuring Ghostface Killah & Suga Bang Bang) (Produced by Icewater Productions)

“Cold Outside” shares not just the themes of “Rainy Dayz”, but also its atmosphere – and I’m not just talking about the tracks’ weather-related titles. There’s a frigid sense of hopelessness in the two songs. Raw, perpetual despair. Though “Rainy Dayz” discussed life in the projects (“infested with rats, cats and crack homes”), the main focus was drug deals and avoiding the cops. “Cold Outside” similarly depicts this storyline, but focuses instead on the former-mentioned themes of ghetto life and strife. Rae and Ghost serve as hood reporters, a term too-often used to describe what rap is. But Rae and Ghost truly are masterful narrators of the whos and whats of street life. Shallah recounts: “Land in every project, sex, lies, murderous reps / Back to cassettes, vets dying on steps / What's really taking place in them hoods? … Last two L's, I seen visions of dead males and more sales / Real life stories is made, and candles got blazed / For little young soldiers shot by them strays.” Ghost follows up: “They found a two year old, strangled to death / With a “Love Daddy” shirt on in a bag on the top of the steps … Renee got AIDS, with five kids smoked out … A Brooklyn man's a molester, court case and the crime's raising … Newports are $7.50, a box of Huggies is off the meat rack / She's back, thirty days, she relapsed / Our troops need to leave Iraq …” Motives are never traced. Instead, Rae and Ghost document chaos as if they were war reporters dropped from the sky into a combat zone. Their final report is an account of bleak reality.

06. Black Mozart (featuring Inspectah Deck, RZA & Tash Mahogany) (Produced by RZA)

The RZA’s creepy, cinema funk production (and sample selection) on “Black Mozart” is spooky enough to be appropriate as a track on a Halloween mixtape. Maybe this is just the seven-year old inside me talking, but the beat is eerily redolent of a fleshed-out version of the background music for the ghost house levels on Super Mario World 2. Maybe I’m tripping… Both the production and lyrics on this track develop as a cacophonous brew of all things Wu. This sketchy selection of Rae bars proves just that: “Four in his pocket, a diamond’ up chain and some coke / Champion hood, the goodies in a brown bag, by the radiator / Near the cookies and the bundles of dope.” It’s funny how Raekwon once criticized RZA as a “hip hop hippie” for his production style on 8 Diagrams, and this Chef-selected beat sounds like it was produced in that epoch. Even funnier – Rae and Deck absolutely slaughter it, fittingly. After all, RZA knows best. Move over, Hogan.

07. Gihad (featuring Ghostface Killah) (Produced by Necro)

The beat reminds me of something you’d hear on a Jedi Mind Tricks album, and I like that. The harmonizing backdrop vocals are low-key enough to keep from being a distraction, but peculiar enough to raise some interest. The rhymes are fresh too, with off the wall Wu-isms like “we bought the crib next to Bill Clinton mother ‘cause she fuck with the Chinese.” Ghost’s hypersexual bars – a nod, perhaps, to his new album – are equally entertaining and um… engaging.

08. New Wu (featuring Ghostface Killah & Method Man) (Produced by RZA)

Yet another Wu-Banga! Not only is this track a reminder that the Wu-Tang rhymesmiths have still got a grip on this ever-changing game called hip hop, it’s yet another reason to give props to the RZA. Always developing and cultivating his craft, the Clan’s leader still shines on the boards, be it as an 8 Diagram “hip hop hippie” or a RZArected Gravedigga on beats like this and “Black Mozart”. Method Man’s buoyant chorus achieves Wu-anthem status here and it seems like if this is what we can expect from Rae, Ghost and Mef’s new collaborative album, I’ll be a happy camper; as long as RZA is involved somehow, someway.

09. Penitentiary (featuring Ghostface Killah) (Produced by BT)

The narrative on this track bares resemblance to PE’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (though nowhere as literal), but of course it’s got a light-hearted, abstract freshness that only R.A.G.U. could provide. At less than two minutes though, it serves the purpose of intermediary between tracks as opposed to being a standalone song of itself. It’s not filler, but it’s definitely one of the more forgettable tracks on the album.

10. Baggin’ Crack (Produced by Erick Sermon)

Prepped by a “Spottieottiedopaliscious”-like drumroll, this track segues into a bouncy, trademark Erick Sermon beat with scratchy hats and squirmish strings. This is another skippable track that, placed in the middle of the album, noticeably pales in comparison to the preceding and proceeding tracks.

11. Surgical Gloves (Produced by The Alchemist)

Rae’s delivery is much fiercer than the previous, and the crowded sound atmosphere makes the track all the more urgent. This is one of ALC’s best beats in a long while!

12. Broken Safety (featuring Jadakiss & Styles P) (Produced by Scram Jones)

Gritty, gully, grimey; this lethal Scram Jones beat is monstrous, bubbling with murderous energy. Rae and his D-Block henchmen take advantage of course, laying waste to this beat with “Run”-reminiscent street scripts. I’ll admit that Styles’ verse leaves a bit more to be desired, but the proverbial door gets kicked in by this high-octane trifecta of terror. This is one of those beats – like “A Milli”, but more deserving – that oughta be freestyled over by half of the industry.

13. Canal Street (Produced by Icewater Productions)

Yet another recognizable sample, at this point in the album I’ve noticed that this is a recurring twist of fate. If I weren’t a sample head, I wouldn’t complain…

14. Ason Jones (Produced by J Dilla)

Like “Life Changes”, the O.D.B. tribute off 2007’s 8 Diagrams (damn, two years already?), “Ason Jones” is built around a soulful sample – reflective keys on “Life Changes”, lush strings on “Ason Jones”. “Yo!” Chef spits over a drop in the beat, as he continues: “I just miss this nigga / And now I understand the meaning of love when I kissed the nigga.” It feels like a follow-up to “Life Changes”, but with a much more personal outlook and delivery sans his Clansmen. It’s just Rae waxing emotional over a Dilla beat. It can’t get much realer than this. Here’s my one gripe though: Ghostface wasn’t on “Life Changes”. Of all the tracks GFK could’ve been on on this album, this one should’ve, nay, must’ve been it!

15. Have Mercy (featuring Beanie Sigel & Blue Raspberry) (Produced by Icewater Productions)

This Beanie Sigel guest spot feels like it was lifted from 2004/2005, when the Mac Man was facing a year behind bars. Sigel’s music at the time reflected the paranoid, neurotic ruminations of a man under said legal turmoil, as documented on his under-appreciated album The B.Coming. To a Wu/Roc fan like myself, track ten on that album, “Lord Have Mercy”, undoubtedly rang a bell when listening to OB4CLII’s “Have Mercy”. Aside from the fact that the “Lord Have Mercy” chorus was interpolated from the sample source behind “Have Mercy”, the subject matter is connected as well, discussing the thoughts that run through a man’s mind, whether he be confined to an eight by twelve or, as Deck would put, “in a world no different from a cell.”

16. 10 Bricks (featuring Cappadonna & Ghostface Killah) (Produced by J Dilla)

While digging through Dilla’s catalogue, you’ll notice a divergence in his content: it either consists of his trademark chopped soul beats sometimes-off-kilter drums, or just some unconventional, weird, experimental loops. The beat for “10 Bricks” is just that. It’s repetitive, sure, but it gives the track a great cipher feel it might not otherwise possess.

17. Fat Lady Sings (Produced by RZA)

A simple soul loop is sometimes enough. Not for me; not for this track. This one’s skip-worthy, regardless of the RZA production credits. Anyone could have “flipped” this. My favorite part of the track is actually an off-the-cuff conversational quote in which Rae barks “we goin’ Ricky Retardo on them niggas.” Comedy gold.

18. Catalina (featuring Lyfe Jennings) (Produced by Dr. Dre)

Moderation is always the healthiest dosage, especially when that medicine is being provided by the good doctor. Would I have been happy if Dre fully produced this album? No. Does that mean I don’t like this song? No. In fact it’s one of the songs I find myself going back to more often than not. Dre’s hyper-clean style is a bit incongruous with Rae’s traditional bars-over-dust approach with the RZA and likeminded beatsmiths, but it works in spurts. Dre’s triumphant backdrop gives Rae the perfect soundboard to flaunt like there’s no tomorrow. His delivery is perfect here, he sounds very relaxed and comfortable.

19. We Will Rob You (featuring Slick Rick, GZA & Masta Killa) (Produced by Allah Justice)

You can probably thank Governor Paterson for this collaboration. While he doesn’t kick a verse on this track, Slick Rick’s feature is still well-received, especially for the fact that he’s essentially conjuring a classic of his own to reflect on those “old Raekwon crime joints.” The Chef begins the massacre with a noticeably golden era-type flow (“Well it was late one night / Walking through the park…”). Masta Killa’s verse on the other hand is all over the place, literally, with an unconventional bar structure that offers an interesting rhyme delivery. There’s a method to his madness, though, as he’s spitting one of his nicest verses in a long, long time.

20. About Me (featuring Busta Rhymes) (Produced by Dr. Dre)

You’ve gotta give Dr. Dre some credit on this one for switching up his style, even for just a bit. “About Me” has got Dre’s hallmark drums, strings and keys, but the looped vocal sample (“ooh”) is a sureshot nod at the grimier, RZAfied beats that Rae is accustomed to hopping on. The track itself is triumphant, very much an anthem for personal accomplishments: “Me, nigga, me, that’s who, ‘Cash Rules’.”

21. Mean Streets (featuring Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah & Suga Bang Bang) (Produced by Allah Mathematics)

Rae and Co. stand by the block on this track, insisting that when the going gets tough, they’ll always have a spot to pitch on. There’s a lyrical highlight on this track. Let’s revel in this double-double-entendre from Ghostface’s verse: “We *crack* *8-balls* with pool sticks.” Yeah. Moving along…

22. Kiss the Ring (featuring Inspectah Deck & Masta Killa) (Produced by Scram Jones)

Elton John is the type of artist who has been picky about the sampling of his work. As the story goes, Elton, a friend of the RZA, personally okayed the use of this sample. Not only that, but he likes the song! Now that’s saying something! A solid bookend to a solid album, Raekwon merges reality and fantasy to reflect on both his career and fictional narratives. “Toast to the best who done it.”

One of the most common – and, after a while, annoying – complaints about this album is that U-God is not on it. “Ooh, I wonder if there’s friction between U and the Wu” some say. Preposterous, I say! U-God, a.k.a. Golden Arms, a.k.a. Lucky Hands, in case you forgot, was killed on track two (“Knuckleheadz”) of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. (Just ask RZA!) Case closed. That being said, since when did anybody actually anticipate a U-God verse? No disrespect (and his new album, Dopium, is admittedly quite good), but c’mon…

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II and I can’t possibly think of any album(s) to knock this one off of any conceivable, respectable top 5 (or 10…) list for 2009, Wu bias or not. OB4CLII has got everything you’d want, assuming you had realistic expectations to begin with. Few albums (really, just this and Detox) have faced such a high level of anticipation, and even fewer have proven to be solid, successful and cohesive projects amidst the label-politics that seemed to plague this album from the onset. For that alone, you oughta recognize that the release of this album is a gift in and of itself; the great quality is just a bonus feature. Fourteen years later, Rae’s hunger is revived, and he’s truly spitting like he’s got a purpose. “Kiss the Ring” or kiss the Chef, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II is only the best rap album of the year. So far, at least.

Read more: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II (TRU Brain Trust Review)