In a time where mainstream hip-hop tends to jump from gimmick to gimmick (ring-tone jams, Auto-Tune, empty dance-floor jams), it's easy to have a cynical reaction to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. 2. A sequel album 14 years after the classic original? This just has to be a stab at notalgia, doesn't it? A way to tap into Raekwon's past success to talk us into buying something new?
The answer is a resounding hell no.
In fact, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. 2 is exactly the kind of album that'll restore your faith in hip-hop, that can cut through cynicism and gimmicks and misleading marketing and remind you what is so vital about rap music. Especially in the hands of a master storyteller like Raekwon.
It's also a true sequel to the Chef's brilliant debut, a set of tracks that picks up right where the epic, impressionistic ghetto tales from that album left off, but now with a hard-earned maturity threading through grim stories of drugs and poverty and violence. Raekwon's cool, hushed delivery, once the hardened voice of a mercenary, has evolved into something deeper. That smooth flow sounds now not distant and cold but weighed down by a deep understanding of this cycle of drugs and violence.
And that understanding takes on many forms here. There's heartbroken resignation in his voice when he raps about pandemic poverty, on the soulful "Cold Outside." Survivalism, on "Penitentiary." Frustration with the young rappers coming up, on "Gihad." And, of course, pride in his rhymes and his crew, on standouts "House of Flying Daggers" and "Mean Streets."
And, for 22 tracks, this album never falls off. There is almost nothing in the way of skits or filler, and Raekwon may still be telling crime tales, but he's still coming at them from fresh angles. His smooth flow is pumped up with energy throughout, and his wordplay is intricate but tight, inventive but always on point, and full of bizarre but cutting images. He might be the only guy who can pull of a line like "blood squirted, looked like laundry detergent."
But what will make this album a classic eventually is how it ends up sounding like a bracing statement of principles from a huge group of today's most vital rappers. As always, Raekwon and Ghostface work perfectly together, with Ghost's frenetic bleating acting as the perfect counterpoint to the Chef's low growl. And Ghostface is on his game with absurd stories (his verse on "Gijad" is the stragest bit of family disfunction you'll hear in '09), stream-of-consciousness strings of images, and an absolute command of every track he appears on. "It's not that bullshit from The Wire," he spits about his tales on "Mean Streets," and damned if you don't believe every word.
It's not just Ghostface, though. Method Man turns in two brilliant verses, on "House of Flying Daggers" and "New Wu," cementing his place as one of the great guest rappers of our time. Inspectah Deck kills it all over this record. And a number of guys who have underachieved on their own records lately, like Beanie Sigel and Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, all step up their game, elevating their rhymes not just to match what Raekwon is doing, but also perhaps to call out rap music, trying to get everyone else (and maybe even themselves from here on out) to get back to work by setting the example.
Behind them a pile of producers you know and love, from Dre to RZA to Marley Marl, don't work out a few singles on great beats and let the rest of the album settle. They put together a unified whole of grimy beats with signature Wu overcast piano lines and soul samples, but with plenty of surprises packed in there. Alchemist's space-aged hum on "Sugical Gloves" is brilliant, as is the paranoid shuffle of Erick Sermon's beat on "Baggin Crack." And what better way to pay tribute to Ol' Dirty Bastard than to use one of the late J Dilla's string-laden beats on "Ason Jones," resulting in a beautiful and heartfelt elegy.
Everyone here is pitch-perfect and on fire to make a great hip-hop record, and rising up in front of the whole group is Raekwon, putting this huge story together in all its staggering breadth. Only Built for Cuban Linx...Pt. 2 is top-to-bottom brilliant, and it's energy and emotion is too infectious not to inspire a dozen great hip-hop records to come. So while some keep resting on gimmicks, and while Jay-Z looks to Grizzly Bear to jolt hip-hop to life, Raekwon is taking the matter into his own hands. And he and his crew prove more than up to the task.
It's hard to find a more anticipated album than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. Originally set for a release in 2007, the album slogged through industry hurdles for years, and the hardships along the way have become near-mythic: a snub by Dr. Dre, contract woes, a year-long feud with RZA, label pressure, etc. Raekwon's fourth solo album is the follow up to 1995's legendary Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. In his words, "People been wanting this record for the last 10 years, so I gotta make sure that this shit is bulletproof." The number of those involved on the production end swelled to include mastermind RZA, posthumous J Dilla, Dr. Dre, and DJ Scratch. Even more names round out the guest appearances, including Pete Rock, The Game, Method Man, GZA, Inspectah Deck, and Ghostface Killa.
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