Saturday, October 31, 2009

Raekwon - Only Built for Cuban Linx Part 2

When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. The name reeked of a crude attempt to cash in on the strength of one hip-hop’s greatest landmarks. RZA was in Hollywood; ODB had cashed his check at that great welfare office in the sky and it seemed like everyone else (except Ghost) had dropped off the face of the earth. It was almost enough to make me believe those (mostly journalists) attempting to conduct a post-mortem of Shaolin’s finest. Happily, I can attest that it simply ain’t so.

The classic Wu style is definitely represented here: a kind ghetto noir woven in gritty detail from threads of street life - murder, family, drug deals, betrayal, etc. No one in Wu, or otherwise, is more adept at this kind of narrative than Raekwon, who’s first Cuban Linx single handedly established the Mafioso Rap genre. He’s a born storyteller who boasts of having “8 million” on Sonny’s Missing: a grim yarn full of gory images about someone murdered for his riches - “…blood on his Adidas was thick ... they broke his neck in like 5 places / pushed him down the rail and he skinned his face. segues into an informative 54-second rap about cooking up crack called Pyrex.

The production on Part 2 is top notch. If the original was good sashimi – raw, fresh, and unadorned - then this could be thought of as some sort of gourmet specialty roll crafted by artisans as diverse as Marley Marl, Dr. Dre, J Dilla, Pete Rock, Eric Sermon and of course the RZA. Full of orchestral strings, horns, organs and guitars (often lifted straight from gangster flicks) as well as the obligitory kung fu samples, it all seems specifically tailored to accommodate the Wu narrative style - sonically matching the cinematic quality of the content.

At 22 tracks, there is amazingly no real filler (it’s telling that everyone I’ve talked to has a different shortlist of favorite songs. Only the RZA produced Black Mozart seems to be haled universally). With all these cooks, it’s a testament to Rae’s vision that the cohesion hasn’t suffered, especially given the plight of 8 Diagrams which suffered from a glut of half-formed ideas and a lack of clear focus.

Lyrically, this is Wu in top form. Ghostface rips it up on about a third of the tracks, his rough staccato providing that lovely counterpoint to Raekwon’s buttery cadence. Cappadonna, Busta Rhymes, Beanie Sigel, Jada Kiss and most of the rest of the clan provide cameos as well.

GZA does his thing on We Will Rob You along with Slick Rick and Masta Killa. Method Man comes through with the hook for rallying call New Wu, a declaritive statement that the Staten Island crew, now nearly two decades in, can still hang lyrically with anyone. Inspectah Deck shows up seemingly out of nowhere to drop the first verse on the album and one of the best on Black Mozart. Ol Dirty gets a proper shout in the form of Ason Jones. It would be easy to overdo something like this, but leave it to Dilla - who employs emotive strings, chopped-up Motown vocals and samples from the fallen MC - to create a heartfelt and convincing tribute.

Despite the high expectations for a project of this magnitude, overall response seems positive. The criticism I have heard ranges from the disillusioned to the delusional (One guy complained that Part 2 lacked sufficient hooks, begging the question: What the hell have you listening to? Because Wu Tang’s MO has always been direct verbal assault – no gimmicks, just rhymes). It’s seems some were expecting this to exceed the original – or somehow revive the ‘90s golden era.

The ‘90s are gone forever, folks. Lacking the novelty factor and the context, there was no way this could have had anything like the impact of its predecessor; still, Part 2’s a quality hip hop record (among the best of ‘09) worthy of its illustrious namesake.

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