The premise of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is pretty straightforward. Raekwon’s second and third albums received neither all-hands-on-deck promotion nor wide critical praise. Crack tales, seemingly every one else’s besides Rae’s, became increasingly popular. So he got to thinking about the good ol’ days — namely the album that everyone associates with him. And with the help of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx‘s principle architect, the RZA, Raekwon set out to create an album that would hearken better times.
Since then fans have been waiting for Chef to jump in the Delorean and bring 1995 back to the future, but the truth is he’s been in that Purple Tape state of mind all this time. Since his last full-length, 2003’s The Lex Diamond Story, Raekwon has recorded tracks that both recall and update his debut’s strongest points. His “criminal slang,” which has been a staple throughout his career, has graduated from the gateway drug of frenetic coke rap to the more “mature” sound of heroin and pill muzack. The linx are no longer Cuban, so much as Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern. And, perhaps in recognition of the original Cuban Linx‘s debut’s bristling interplay between Rae and other compatible MCs, he also strengthened and widened his connects through guest appearances, side projects and his Vatican mixtape series. Rae’s recent work suggests that he knows the value of a quality collaboration versus a name collaboration.
That said, fans remain fixated on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II because of its increasingly mythical reputation. Last I heard, the guest list includes Dr. Dre, Erick Sermon, the Game, Cap’n Crunch and Boo Berry. While the end product remains a moving target, the process remains constant. Meaning: Much like Q-Tip’s abundant unreleased output, Raekwon’s post-Lex material maps a clear path to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. The following is a selection of tracks that illustrate this point.
1. AZ: “New York” (feat. Raekwon and Ghostface)
One of Rae’s constant qualities has been his reverence for the New York City of his upbringing. Case in point is “New York,” from AZ’s 2005 album, A.W.O.L., wherein Only Built 4 Cuban Linx primaries Rae and Ghost join Nas-understudy AZ to revisit the New York City of their glory years. Wild Style‘s “Gangbusters” sets the beat as shady hustlers, harassing po-lice, and murdered informants populate the streets of their Naked City. But while AZ and Ghost flirt with familiar Law & Order hyperbole, Rae’s recollection of “getting murked in a cab” sticks out. In a post-Giuliani NYC, where a businessman cheerfully runs the city with a capitalist fist, such vice tales have become washed away. The stories that made NYC both violent and vibrant are now considered figments of the past, which makes these MCs quasi-arbiters of this history. Perhaps sensing this, Rae understandably grasps both the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx legacy and its referent era.
2. Raekwon: “Baggage Handlers”
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx‘s extended homage to Scarface associates Raekwon with grand Hollyhood narratives by default, especially of the exploitative DePalma variety. The truth is that Rae’s style has more currency today in a post-Wire landscape. His slang-filled, stream-of-conscience raps are driven by intricate details and irrational trains of thought from regular conversations, as opposed to predictable scripts or dramatic visuals.
So never mind the Scarface clip in the intro to “Baggage Handlers,” a track from his 2006 mixtape, The Vatican, Vol. 1. Raekwon’s verses are the meat of the track. “All I know is real detail/ Coke, lasagna and them E pills,” he says as he walks carefully out of a Tony Montana reality and into a dramatization of his life. Rae seemingly knows “it’s all in the details.”
3. Ghostface: “R.A.G.U.” (feat. Raekwon)
It’s not like Rae and Ghost ever parted ways, but their pairings certainly became more sporadic post-Purple Tape. Then this track on Ghost’s Fishscale popped up and reminded everyone of the potency of their partnership. Like how every comic foil needs a straight man, like every bad cop needs a good cop, Ghost needed Rae and vice versa. “R.A.G.U.” is less a song than two friends trading stories that build on each other’s momentum. The premise is familiar — couple guys talkin’ about some kid from around the way that did some shit, so he got some shit done to him — but Rae and Ghost have so much fun charting the progression of their subject’s comeuppance.
4. Joy Denalane: “Heaven or Hell” (feat. Raekwon)
“The only thing she left was a rose/ And left the rose in front of the building/ Now, how the fuck my pain got exposed? Damn…”
Rae performs his most selfless creative act in giving singer Joy Denalane (Germany has been knowing her more than us Yanks) one of his bluest songs, as well as giving his all for a brief but very necessary prologue. Again, the scenario is familiar — woman walks away from the hate at home — but Rae’s quick monologue goes from pleading to humiliation in eight bars, which lays the foundation for Joy’s cleansing walk. Even in such a small support role, Raekwon gives Denalane the necessary blessing to let her take ownership of the song.
5. El Michels Affair: “The P.J.’s” (feat. Raekwon)
By the time Rae and Brooklyn funk revivalists El Michels Group “remixed” this 2006 Pete Rock joint, each had already overcome the novelty of their collaboration. EMG had released a 7-inch of instrumental “Shaolin soul” and Rae had begun performing his material in concert with the group. As a result there is a remarkable synchronicity to this recording — a comfort-level attained by simple osmosis. The two share an appreciation for a past era — for a once ubiquitous producer and a nostalgic song — but the results are unlike anything either could create in a vacuum, or removed from the other.
6. Ice Water: “Do It Big” (feat. Busta Rhymes and Raekwon)
Did anyone listen to this whole album? Nah Right called it a “weed carrier” record. However, as made clear from the composition of the cover — note the amount of real estate Corey’s face occupies — Ice Water seems more like a personal vanity project. In the absence of his Wu-brethren, Rae tries to saddle up his own posse. That said, “Do It Big” is not without its charms, barring the fact that it’s backward. Busta opens with a dramatic verse that makes the next two verses (from those I’d presume to be the Ice Water lads) tolerable before Rae cleans up. The problem is Rae seldom swings DH on the posse cuts. Instead of providing the 1812 finale, he turns in his signature opiated delivery, which does not fit for a song called “Do It Big.” That said, Rae recognizes his strength within numbers, so respek for trying to build community. He is simply misplaced here.
7. Ghostface: “Yolanda’s House” (feat. Method Man and Raekwon)
Which is not to say Rae can’t close out at all. Rae finds comfort in the familiar company of GFK and Mef. Each approaches the song with effortless charm and subtle ribbing that reads like the Four Brothers script — or in this case an odd set of triplets — or like “R.A.G.U.” Rae’s straight man business sensibilities contrast perfectly against Ghost and Meth’s sex comedy antics. The three are at odds with and dependent upon each other.
8. Wu-Tang Clan: “Heart Gently Weeps”
The first officially “leaked” track from the Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams album is also a study in contrast. Meth, Ghost and Rae again take turns telling drug tales gone wrong over the familiar Beatles loop. And of the three, Rae’s hushed performance comes closest to matching the song’s tone. His promethazine delivery slouches atop the drowning beat like a deep blues. While GFK and Mef bring the comedy and the tragedy, respectively, the three sound out of sync — like they lined up to take turns at a mike without thinking about the other man’s verse — and the song moseys along without doing or saying much. No man is an island, indeed.
9. Big Boi: “Royal Flush” (feat. Andre 3000 and Raekwon)[audio:http://media.prefixmag.com/site_media/uploads/mp3s/big-boi-royal-flush.mp3]
OK, there are three points of interest that supersede Rae’s appearance on this track:
1. The OutKast “reunion”;
2. Andre 3K rhyming, not singing — and the point is made very explicit by the fact that his verse is over six times longer than everyone else’s;
3. Big Boi is fast-rapping like it’s the ’90s.
If you’re still paying attention, you’ll be treated to a welcome update of “Skew It on the Bar-B.” Like their previous meeting, the collaboration is an odd pairing of ‘Kast’s slick image-rich talk and Rae’s pistol-whipping thuggery. This time each MC’s verse complements each other more like a Full House: Big Boi and Rae form a pair with verses structured around a single rhyme syllable and 3K cleans up with a more complex, 1-2-3 combo. Though Rae’s role seems pretty minor, he demonstrates more teamwork here than on the last Wu-Tang Clan album. Frankly, that old one about forming like Voltron doesn’t ring as true anymore. Why no one wants to play with Rae is beyond me.
10. Raekwon: “My Corner”[audio:http://media.prefixmag.com/site_media/uploads/mp3s/Raekwon-My-Corner.mp3]
Raekwon sits alone in a room blowing trees while the Dells’ staple “Stay in My Corner” wafts through the background. The day is humid and hot, the blinds are closed, and slits of light scatter across the room. A rusty room fan pushes the otherwise immobile air.
Cue opening credits.
This intro sequence is as important as Rae’s verse. “My Corner,” the first purported single from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, is actually a red herring — it is less about the music than a visual or mood. It sets the stage for Rae’s weary recollections: He’s alone, past his days of running the streets, but trying to find comfort in “taking [his] time.” Rae’s strength has never been storytelling, but rather detailed imagery. Here, it works well, arguably better than the Hollyhood hyperbole that tugs at his reputation. Perhaps Rae’s best bet for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is to lay Scarface to rest.
Photo Credit: Chris Owyoung/Prefixmag.com