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Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II Review

Album sequels are a double-edged sword—they inspire immediate anticipation and virtually guarantee a quick response, but they also wall in the ambition of an artist so he/she will remain faithful and the hype of expectations can be ruinous if the results don’t astonish. Adding to that languishing hype is postponement—Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II arrives at least two years too late, which annoyed some and disinterested others (remember the relatively minor ripples caused by Chinese Democracy where a tidal wave would have been inevitable ten years before?). If time alone had been the key factor (though we know better) then polish and perfectionism are instant virtues. If writer’s block were even conceivable for a man of Raekwon’s range and talent, we could better understand. But mostly it was feuding with labels and collaborators and overall dissatisfaction; if this be the yields, viva dissent.

Picking up right where the first Cuban Linx left off, “The Return of the North Star” is a continuation reuniting that Barry White sample and Popa Wu’s teacher/philosopher character. BT’s production is seeped in the Far East cinematic sound (with its conversational sensei style, you could easily mistake it for an audio clip from a roughhouse blaxploitation flic paying homage to kung fu). J Dilla’s slashing, metallic synth strings cut through that haze on the next track, the posse cut “House of Flying Daggers.” Inspectah Deck come stomping in, spitting, “No respect for the cops and laws/In the land where your own blood brother still plot for yours/Seen things that'll drop your jaw.” Raekwon follows on his own verse with the kind of brutal fire we haven’t heard from the Chef since, well, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

But it’s not to last—as Pt. II dominates bleakness over boasting, the confrontational energy would have been ill-suited. Older, wiser (but still not settled), Raekwon spends most of the album serving as a weary reporter and admonished promoter, an eyewitness and an instigator. His first person accounts of crack den shootouts (“Baggin’ Crack”) and drug dealer murders (“Sonny’s Missing”) are brutal and authentic enough without the force. Raekwon’s rhyme schemes are complex and twisting, and he obviously pored over them with great ear for detail; nevertheless, his (s)low-key, almost meandering style just can’t compare to the visceral impact of his in-your-face rhyming from “Flying Daggers.” It’s the ebbing of that momentum that’s one of the few faults with this disc—some segments start to drag over more than seventy minutes. Luckily, his storytelling skills are as strong as ever, and with only a few exceptions, every track produces a vivid snapshot or whole slice of this grim and unsettling life.

Lending balance to this predicament is Ghostface Killah, who again appears with some frequency as he did on the original Linx. His verses on “Flying Daggers,” “Penetentiary” and, especially, “Cold Outside” (easily the best of Raekwon’s own Icewater Productions’ tracks), are all sharp—on the latter, he raps, “Holiday season is here and I'm vexed/Who the f-ck made Christmas up?/I'm f-cking broke, it ain't making no sense/Newports are $7.50, a box of Huggies is off the meat rack.” The chemistry between the Chef and Tony Starks is still palpable, an id and superego pairing that serves both sides of each story’s coin. In addition to Ghostface and Deck, every other Wu member (besides U-God) shows up for a guest or two, and the spirit of Ol’ Dirty Bastard is enlivened on “Ason Jones”; played for heart more than laughs makes it a superior cut despite a surprisingly non-descript looping beat from J Dilla.

The album is not without its less effective moments. Weak chorus hooks on “Catalina” and “We Will Rob You” (obviously, a nod to and pattern lift from the stomping Queen anthem) fail to elevate beyond serving as time killers between solid verses. This is especially unfortunate on the latter as samples from Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” inject revitalized energy on the back end. The language of “Gihad” is frustratingly scattershot: amusing joke one moment (“She take a bone like a rib-eye steak at Ruth’s Chris”), profanely blasé the next (“Spit drippin’ down my balls, she slobber me/That’s right, suck that dick, get it hard for me”). And despite his solid production on “Black Mozart,” RZA also takes a turn on the mic and pays weak tribute to ODB by emulating the Dirt McGirk persona during the bridge. But these missteps are mere flaws to otherwise redeemable cuts—the bigger problem is overlength as interest begins to wane during the midsection. But just as you think its wearing out its welcome, the album roars back strong with the final three: the Dr. Dre-helmed “About Me” (with a better-than-average uncredited appearance from Busta Rhymes), “Mean Streets” with a killer beat and dense soundscape, and “Kiss the Ring,” which, believe it or not, borrows from Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The finale also provides the album with a broad, anthemic rhyme for Deck to deliver on the refrain—“When I step inside, kiss the ring, Wu Familia, La Cosa Nostra, it’s our thing.”

Raekwon seemed to be biding his time since 1995 when his Only Built 4 Cuban Linx put him among the elite of Wu’s MCs. Since that time, his two other solo projects (Immobilarity, The Lex Diamond Story) barely registered among both the fanbase and the critical community. The notion of a follow-up might seem to the more cynical as a blatant attempt to cash in on past glory, but despite the fact that much of Pt. II seems to be reiterating a lot of the same themes and tales, it’s as inspired and blazing as anything in the Shaolin canon since Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele. Familiarity may hamstring its surprise factor (eclectic subjects and settings aren’t one of the Clan’s strong suits), but along with Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, this handily represents hip hop’s best effort of an admittedly weak year. And with the inclusion of so many Wu-circling guests, it might even make up for the mixed returns of the last three group records. If Raekwon likes to brag that he makes movies for his ears, then this Mafioso joint can rest comfortably between De Palma and Coppola.

"Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II" is on sale September 2, 2009 from EMI.

Oct
19
2009
Matt Medlock

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