Album Review: Chef Raekwon's 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Pt 2'*
Outside of mixtape culture and Jay-Z and Lil Wayne’s canny emulation of the Hollywood model, rap has been mostly devoid of official sequels. Without a clear precedent, no one expected a proper follow-up to his original opus; they were just hoping for something better than 1999’s “Immobilarity,” an effort best remembered as the most brutal sophomore slump since the Stones Roses’ “Second Coming,” and for its title’s coinage of the only adjective capable of describing Derek Fisher’s defensive deficiencies in last years playoffs.
The withering reviews were partially attributable to unreasonably high expectations and partially due to Raekwon’s decision to replace RZA and Ghostface with the sort of low-budget imitations typically associated with Orange County pop-punk bands, vampire television programs and Señor Spielbergo. His third album, 2003’s “The Lex Diamond Story,” was an improvement, but lacked polish — though a recent Memory Man mash-up illustrated that the album’s flaws stemmed more from failed sonics than the limitations of its scope.
“Only Built for Cuban Linx 2” is rap’s “Chinese Democracy,” an album burdened by titanic expectations, broken promises and ostensibly consigned to a neveruary release date. Originally slated to drop on Aftermath, rumblings about the album began more than half a decade ago with Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes rumored to be executive-producing. Eventually, XXL ranked it one of the most anticipated albums of 2007 — after all, this isn’t “Saw VI,” but the sequel to 1995’s perfect purple tape — an infinitely quotable opus that spawned a million ersatz Scarfaces, rentals of “The Killer” and reinterpretations of the definition of “ice cream.”
Somehow, despite its painstaking half-decade gestation, the Chef’s fourth offering never feels over-cooked. From the get-go, “Return of the North Star” rightfully intimates a re-gained sense of navigation, with older god Popa Wu picking up where the original left off to bless the album with 5% mumbo-jumbo and mystical benedictions.
Careful to re-create the original’s spirit but not its script, Raekwon intuitively eschews straight exhumation, offering his own exegesis of the Wu-Tang Manual. Openly dissatisfied with the orchestral prog-rap aspirations of the Clan’s commercially disappointing “8 Diagrams,” Raekwon openly telegraphs his intent to make “punch-you-in-the-face-music." Accordingly, “Cuban Linx 2” sends flurries of upper cuts, combining the most Clan cameos since their first round of solo projects with welcome guest spots from Jadakiss and Styles P (“Broken Safety”), Beanie Sigel (“Have Mercy”), Busta Rhymes (“About Me”) and Slick Rick (“We Will Rob You”).
While many of their '90s peers recycle toothless tautologies about bringing New York back or vainly wrestle with advanced age by collaborating with flavor-of-the-minute flotsam and jetsam, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah refuse to stay forever young. Proudly profane, the two come off as salty mafia dons with long memories, too old to change their ways but with the narrative skill and eye for detail of master storytellers in their prime.
On “Cold Outside,” the putative sequel to “Rainy Dayz,” Ghost unlashes a stream-of-consciousness threnody about everything from “[finding] a 2-year-old strangled to death with a 'love daddy' shirt on, in a bag on top of the step, to menthols at $7.50 a pack, to the troops needing to leave Iraq.” By contrast, Raekwon’s star turns are more subtle, opting for slice-of-hood-life vignettes still full of tangled singular slang. On “Baggin’ Crack” alone, he describes “shopping like a lumberjack,” boasts about “Suge Knighting the building” and derides his enemies as “dig-dug.”
While RZA helmed the entirety of the original, he only appears twice on its sequel. Instead, Raekwon recruits a murderer’s row of producers, including J Dilla, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon, the Alchemist. The erstwhile Corey Woods even escaped from Aftermath purgatory with two menacing minor-key Dr. Dre beats, which is akin to escaping Alcatraz with the warden’s daughter and a letter of recommendation.
Cumulatively, the effect is analogous to the hip-hop version of “The Departed”: filled with virtuosic star-studded performances, heavily indebted to Asian cinema, and tweaking rather than transforming a timeless aesthetic. While it may lack the visionary fervor and feral intensity of their earlier work, both offerings are best-of-the-year contenders that triumph over bloated run times due to depth and peerless craft. A major work from a legendary late-career artist, unshackled from the inevitable and unfair comparisons that perennially dog sequels, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt 2” is worthy of the highest compliment it’s eligible for: This was worth the wait.
-- Jeff Weiss
"Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2"
EMI / Ice Water
*Update: The original version of this post featured art for "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx."