Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Album: Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

Only Built for Cuban Links II (Raekwon)
Album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
Ice H20, 2009
Rating: ********* (9/10)

The world has been waiting fourteen years for this follow-up to Raekwon's 1995 solo debut, which was hailed as one of the best rap albums of all time. Raekwon, who got his start in the Wu-Tang Clan, is known as Raekwon the Chef, and OB4CL I chronicled the drama of trafficking coke in intimate detail. Unsurprisingly, OB4CL II returns to these themes, with unsubtle song titles like "Pyrex Vision," "Baggin Crack" and "Ten Bricks."

However, the album seems more linked to the Wu-Tang debut 36 Chambers than to Raekwon's earlier opus. References to the themes and lyrics of that album abound. The entire original Wu-Tang Clan except U-God appears as well - even Ol' Dirty Bastard makes a posthumous appearance on "Ason Jones," a startlingly frank and loving tribute to the WTC founder. (The beat was also laid down by hip-hop master J Dilla before his own untimely death in 2006.)

OB4CL II features relatively few surprises - it remains in the general Wu-Tang style and, as expected, features some of the best hardcore rapping ever recorded. At twenty-three tracks, you'd expect some filler and the types of interludes used by Wu-Tang in the past. However, all two dozen tracks are full-fledged songs, if not all of consistent quality.

When I first listened to the album, the first two tracks didn't play and I didn't notice, so I started with "Sonny's Missing," an extremely (perhaps gratuitously) violent song with a spare, deep, dark beat and naked vocal attack. When I discovered the album actually followed the WTC tradition of including an introductory track, I was disappointed to learn OB4CL II hadn't broken the template at all. The album is simply and sadly not earth-shattering, no matter how good the tracks.

The second song, "House of Flying Daggers," features WTCers Inspectah Deck and Method Man in a well-executed throw back to 36 Chambers, made even edgier, darker and more aggressive. Unfortunately, some of the later WTC-centered tracks grasp less successfully for this hard-edged sound, ending up muddled or stale - "Black Mozart" and "Kiss the Ring" seem confused and overwrought, while "New Wu" slightly misses the (admittedly high) mark.

With over a dozen credited producers, the tracks lack some cohesion. Marley Marl's lazy, minor-key guitar loop on "Pyrex Vision" is followed by Icewater's overdone, orchestral production on "Cold Outside." Scram Jones's melodic sense makes a poor chaser for Allah Mathematics' "Mean Streets" and Dr. Dre's chilled out grooves rest uncomfortably in the midst of a distinctly East Coast album.

The more melodic songs are the most incongruous on the record. "Cold Outside" is a beautiful tune, but trumpets and grandiose production cost it its edge. The female R&B vocals on "Have Mercy" seem half-baked. In general, Icewater-produced songs seem greatly overdone in their heavy orchestration - part of WTC's appeal, and indeed part of the appeal of hardcore rap in general, is its raw minimalism. While the richer backing tracks work in a few places, like the highly dramatized "Canal Street," they mostly just gum up the works.

Better are the stripped, straight-forward beats of "Penitentiary" and "Broken Safety." The former builds painful levels of tension with a fast, high piano pulse on a single uncomfortable interval throughout the entire song. The latter rests on a scraping, metallic bass on the upbeat and little else. "Surgical Gloves" is also worthy of note - the Alchemist's production features cold chiming as if from a video game.

Though most of the songs on the album are excellent, "House of Flying Daggers" and "Canal Street" are both stand-out tracks with enough pop appeal to stick in your memory but enough edge to stand with the WTC's best. "We Will Rob You" is not the best song by any stretch, but the clever humor of the lyrics and the ability to recall the referenced rock song while still sounding like a Raekwon album are certainly worthy of note.

The single strongest track is probably "Broken Safety," which distills the spirit of East Coast rap to its purest form. Guests Jadakiss and Styles P share Raekwon's mic and prove themselves worthy of the role. Straight-forward, unembellished and in your face, "Broken Safety" represents the best of its genre.

"Kiss the Ring" makes for a poor closer, burying talent bellow a jumble of half-articulated ideas. Luckily, the album's bonus track, "Walk with Me," makes a much better finale. The ethereal singing and sparkling wind chimes in the background certainly set it apart, but all the components come together to make a cohesive and powerful statement.

After the disastrous 8 Diagrams, Wu-Tang members have been trying to prove they still have balls. Some of the graphic lyrics in OB4CL II seem unnecessary, especially as Raekwon has nothing to prove. Still, this is probably the heaviest Wu-Tang project to date and in this case, that's a very good thing. As "Broken Safety" explains, "Fuck savin' hip-hop, we bringin' the streets back."

Wu-Tang Forever.

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