August 01, 2021

Raekwon "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..." (August 1, 1995)

Love 'em or hate 'em, if there's one thing you have to respect about the Wu-Tang members' solo projects, it's that they challenge your expectations like no other records in hip hop today. With the emphasis always placed on the featured vocalist's expression of individuality, it's no wonder that Tical and Return to the 36 Chambers--The Dirty Version occasionally lost listeners amidst their more self indulgent moments, some exceptionally dope music notwithstanding. Perhaps that's why the notion of a solo album from Wu-Tang's consummate team player, Raekwon the Chef, is so intriguing. Acknowledging the strength of his role-playing persona, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... manages to pull off a remarkable feat--spotlighting Raekwon as the LP's focus in spite of the fact that he only actually performs alone on three of the eighteen cuts. The key to unlocking this mystery is, of course, Ghostface Killer--the perennial co-star of the show. With his prominent contributions in support--along with appearances by all other Clan members, save for ODB--Cuban Linx most successfully recaptures the camaraderie of the original 36 Chambers in the solo era, while it redefines Raekwon's on-mic personality in the tradition of Staten Island mob history. Cont'd below....

Ostensibly a concept piece chronicling Rae and Ghost's adventures in crime and last gasp struggles to leave the hood life behind, the album adeptly divides time between the sort of story-oriented material this duo's become known for, and more straight forward Shaolin sword-style rhyme exercises. In either mode, the RZA's increased propensity for haunting orchestral arrangements is the first thing you notice about Cuban Linx's sonic landscape. With several interludes of dialogue included, the album plays like the soundtrack to a film you wish could pay eight bones to see. Soap opera strings soak "Striving For Perfection's" LP-intro, giving way to "Knuckleheadz" ironically good-timey Goodfellas bounce, while "Knowledge God's" dope, discordant piano keys are straight Quincy Jones-style ambience. As the crowning glory of this unit's penchant for melodrama, however, "Rainy Dayz" eclipses even "Can It All Be So Simple" and "Heaven and Hell" in terms of pure pathos: A somber line of sustained strings, thunderous cloudbursts of rain and Wu-diva Blue Raspberry's Greek chorus offset Raekwon and Ghost's articulated aspirations of reaching somewhere over the rainbow by any means necessary. A movie moment, no doubt. Arguably, Cuban Linx may be at its strongest when the confines of storylines are abandoned, causing the perspectives of street pusher and rhyme sayer to collide within the same verse: "I move rhymes like retail/Make sure my shit sell/From where we at to my man's cell/From staircase to stage/Minimum wage/But soon to get an article in Rap Page" Raekwon rhymes on "Incarcerated Scarface." ... Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... is that rare breed of contemporary hip hop album. A record that not only meets and/or exceeds expectations, but one that does so as if the outcome was never in doubt. Naturally, some may dismiss its tale of guns, G's and grams as just so much East Coast-gangsta posturing. However, to do so would be to ignore the passion that qualifies some music as art and limits others as strictly product. In the end, who's the real pusher? The best of Wu-Tang's solo fare thus far? Quite possibly. The album to beat in '95? Yes. - Ego Trip (Chairman Mao). Certainly one of the best rap albums...ever!