Classics are “lightning in a bottle” occurrences. No matter how great an artist is, a musician can’t simply waltz into the studio and make timeless record after timeless record. A classic LP is the perfect storm, where various factors from technical skill to the artist’s emotional/spiritual state all come together in a perfect marriage of artistic expression. If an artist is lucky, they’ll get that experience once in their lifetime. If the music gods favor them, maybe twice. Those who’ve had it sometimes try in vain for the rest of their careers to recapture that vibe. Others, like Wu-Tang’s Raekwon, are pushed back to their former glory by outside forces.
For the past 15 years, the original Cuban Linx has been the Chef’s cruel mistress. On one hand, it’s his greatest triumph, the shining jewel of the Wu’s acclaimed catalogue and universally recognized as one of Hip-Hop’s greatest albums. But simultaneously, it’s overshadowed every work afterward, with fans dismissing everything as unworthy, subpar follow-ups. Well, Rae’s not running from Cuban Linx anymore. In fact, he doing what he claims comes easy, and that’s the NY Mafioso, cocaine-centered Hip-Hop that he popularized in the 90’s. But in 2009, can Only Built for Cuban Linx II (Ice Water/EMI) recapture the magic?
Immediately, your spirit is sent back to the summer of ’95 courtesy of the familiar rhythms on “Return of the North Star.” Papa Wu reprises his role as an aged Rae confidant, and leads right into the jaw-dropping Wu posse cut “House of Flying Daggers.” The track is classic Wu. From the pounding string instruments, soul/kung fu samples, and the near flawless verses of Meth, Deck, and Ghostface, the LP gets off to the perfect start for those doubting the Clan’s prowess in 2009.
What immediately strikes the listener about these introductory songs is how well Rae and the producers recreate the atmospheric, perilous reality of drug life from the original album. Whether it’s Pete Rock’s menacing chords accentuating a brutal kidnapping on “Sonny Missing,” or Marley Marl’s dragging guitar loop complimenting the Chef’s crack baking process on “Pyrex Visions,” you are completely immersed in the project after a few songs.
Some fans worried about RZA only offering a few standout tracks (“New Wu,” “Black Mozart”), but the Abbott excels here as an executive producer. Despite the mixed response to some of his experimentation over the years, the Abbott knows the Cuban Linx sounds fans were salivating for. Even more amazing, the legendary broadsmith is able to take the contributions of over 11 producers and sequence them to a mosaic tapestry for Rae’s unique perspective on the game.
Ghosface Killah fans will also be happy. On the OG version, Ghost delivered lyrically but also supplied memorable one-liners that contrasted well with the violent, dangerous stories (“Don’t play me like I’m holding a flower pot”). Here, Ghost shines on tracks like “Gihad,” were he weaves a hilarious tale of being caught jilting his friend through a pregnant girlfriend. It’s classic Ghostface, and you can’t help but crack a smile at how the Wally Champ ends the narrative (“Go in the freezer and get a steak for your eye n***a, go put some baloney on your face…I don’t give a f**k if you 25 you still my son n***a.”). On “Penitentiary,” he returns to the ruthlessness of jail life alluded to on classic “Verbal Intercourse.” Throughout the album, Ghost remains an irreplaceable influence every few tracks, and ensures the listener gets a nice energy contrast from Rae’s laidback rhyme schemes.
Non-Wu guests are not a problem either. Jada and Styles P are at home reciting coke tales and go hard over a Scram Jones’s bass-heavy street banger in “Broken Safety” (“I used to move brown rectangles/Roll you a blunt to smoke you with Death’s Angels”). And Beanie Sigel crafts a vivid picture about the loneliness of incarceration on Icewater’s somber “Have Mercy.”
Even Dr. Dre’s two offerings of “Catalina” and “About Me” fit in. The former showcases Lyfe Jennings crooning on the inevitable end of weight pushing, and the latter features Dre’s trademark piano thumps and a cocksure Busta Rhymes (“I see the weakness in most of you n***as that be hollering/So I toned it down so these words be piercing your lower abdomen.”). Throw in Slick Rick providing the intro to “We Will Rob You,” and you have the big event feel you’d expect from an album of this magnitude.
When Raekwon goes at it solo, the album doesn’t suffer. “Fat Lady Sings” is a hard-hitting narrative of block appropriation, replete with soulful singing and lyrics that nod to the original’s LPs creative lines (“Shorty was a vet/Gillette solider/Shorty hit the neck/Blood squirting look like laundry detergent…”). “Ason Jones” as a worthy tribute to the late Ol Drity Bastard, and once again Dilla blesses this album from the beyond with production that illuminates the bittersweet pitch of Rae’s reflections.
The complaints are minor, in that “Criminology 2” fits the album better than “Mean Streets.” And surely some fans will want to burn Nas at the stake for not returning Rae’s calls for “Verbal Intercourse 2.” But considering Esco’s divorce situation, God’s Son should get a pass. His presence is missed, but nonetheless not essential to this album’s success.
Is Cuban Linx II the classic, genre-turning opus that was the original? No, but it’s as close as one can possibly get. As the great Chicago poet Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. stated, “This ain’t ’94 Joe/We can’t go back.” But that doesn’t mean one can’t tap those old spirits to assist in creating genuine, new art. Like Nas did on Stillmatic, Shallah Raekwon has done well by the legacy of his greatest work. Now, we fans should let him rest. The Cuban Linx saga is complete, and the Chef should be allowed to move on to other artistic endeavors if he so chooses. Well done, Rae.