After releasing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… in 1995, Raekwon took four years to produce a follow-up, the disappointing Immobilarity. It seems that Raekwon is determined not to repeat Immobilarity’s mistakes — an overly long gestation period, a production palette that strayed from the classic kung-fu noir of the Wu-Tang — and so Shaolin vs Wu-Tang arrives just 18 months after Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. With Shaolin vs Wu-Tang added to last year’s undercooked yet serviceable collaboration with Method Man and Ghostface, Wu Massacre, and the mixtape Cocainism Vol 2, there’s been a surprising plethora of Raekwon material as of late, where previously he released music at a tortoise’s speed. Raekwon’s newfound sense of urgency is an encouraging development.
But while Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II was an undeniable triumph, a gritty criminal epic that you could sink into the way you could a novel or a serialized TV drama, the rest of Raekwon’s recent output has been spottier. Lyrically, Raekwon is best at the fragmentary anecdote, where a name or image summons 16 bars of vivid storytelling, but sometimes he falls into a game of gangsterism free-association that just isn’t as exciting. Unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former on Shaolin vs Wu-Tang, and though the album’s guest list is as impressive as its predecessor’s, it lacks the varied production of Cuban Linx II. Raekwon may have avoided a let-down with Shaolin vs Wu-Tang, but he has still fallen short of his most recent effort.
Raekwon famously dissed RZA’s production on 8 Diagrams as the work of a “hip-hop hippie,” and yet he still tapped RZA for two tracks on Cuban Linx II in addition to using beats by the late J Dilla, a producer hardly immune to psychedelic experimentation. One of the great things about Cuban Linx II was how the album respected the classic Wu aesthetic while simultaneously pushing it forward. But Shaolin vs Wu Tang seems more hard-boiled than Liquid Swords: there’s little in the mix besides horror-movie strings, gutter-thumping bass lines, and disembodied R&B samples. Sometimes this approach works. “Snake Pond” features a classic Raekwon midnight tale involving a shoot-out at Chipotle, a fiend hiding in a tree, and a female co-conspirator running a check-forging scam, and it’s all held together by minimalist soundscape of eerie vocal loops and plucks from a Chinese zither. But then there’s “Molasses,” which features Rick Ross and Ghostface. You would expect a more opulent setting for Raekwon and these two kingpins, but instead the beat is a hookless, unoriginal blend of plaintive soul horns and a plodding low end.
In addition to multiple Ghostface appearances, Shaolin vs Wu Tang has two Method Man spots, Nas, Lloyd Banks, Black Thought, Inspectah Deck, Busta Rhymes, and Ross — plus Raekwon. In other words, there’s plenty of good rapping here. But it’s the kind of tossed-off, uninspired rapping that you used to find on mixtapes before mixtapes became as important as albums. And the tepid, RZA-by-numbers production contributes to the sense that no here is going all out. Raekwon is obviously saving his energy for the third installment of the Cuban Linx series, which he promises is on the way during the third track of Shaolin vs Wu-Tang. If Shaolin vs Wu-Tang turns out to be a stop-gap between classic albums, then there’s little use in complaining about its inadequacies. It keeps Raekwon relevant, not to mention is better than most of the hip hop out there. But it’s always worrying when an artist, even one as celebrated as Raekwon, gets complacent.