By all accounts, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II should have been a complete failure. Delayed for almost four years (routinely a tell-tale sign of looming disaster) and originally set to be executive produced by Busta Rhymes — who’s somehow still credited, even though Raekwon’s confirmed he had no involvement with the final product’s shape or sound — everything about the project, at first, seemed like a futile, last-ditch effort from an OG who’d all but lost his touch the second he stopped letting RZA produce his albums. So the initial announcement drew merited reservation from long-time fans and growing skeptics: after all, this wasn’t a follow-up to any old rap album — this was going to be the second part to a certified classic of the genre, the greatest solo Wu-Tang effort not helmed by Ghostface (though, to be fair, there’s really not much competition in that department).
This is also to say that you don’t get much more transparently desperate in the world of hip-hop — it’s more a social faux pas in other genres than an outright admittance of irrelevance — than releasing a sequel to a supposed classic. Not another in a continuing series, mind you; Lil Wayne got away with five different installments of Tha Carter because they ran up against each other release-wise like a big tentpole franchise. We’re talking an official studio sequel to a career-defining body of work, one that comes once in a lifetime — and yet, time and time again, washed-up rappers continue to beat long-dead horses. Where does one begin with a selection this mediocre? The bloated The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse remains one of Jay-Z’s lowest moments; The Documentary 2 and 2.5 confirmed The Game’s noxious penchant for being carried by features (and amounted to a collective length longer than the entirety of Tarkovsky’s Stalker); the boring Purple Haze 2 found Cam’ron limping toward the end of his career with minimal enthusiasm; Eminem continued making the worst music humanly imaginable on The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The list, you can imagine, goes on and on.
But Raekwon, somehow and someway, proved to be the exception to this rule: if anything, the reference to his previous masterpiece was the needed inspiration to compose a body of work worthy of that namesake, with multiple rewrites and revisions along the way to warrant the multiple postponements. You see, he had a vision; one of The Godfather II variety (“Black Mozart” even samples The Professionals’ iconic theme music, in case the connection wasn’t obvious enough) in terms of ambition and scope. The strict linearity of OB4CL was thus replaced by a certain type of excess that can only accumulate with age; the production team and sprawling tracklist are just a few of Raekwon’s many spoils, the prized possessions he’s racked up over the years. So while Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II retains the same cinematic verve as its predecessor — it picks up mere seconds after the first on “Return of the North Star,” with an aged Popa Wu and Lex Diamond-esque Raekwon reflecting on their cemented influence — it certainly carries its own identity, one which could best be characterized by the elder statesman status of the vast majority of its contributors.
Here, the Wu are no longer the mangy up-and-comers they were in the early days of 1995; they’re now survivors, legends, icons — ones who seize any opportunity to remind you of it. They all make an appearance at one point or another — except for U-God, who was killed off on “Knuckleheadz,” so we’ll let his absence slide for the sake of canon, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who’s beautifully memorialized on the tender “Ashton Jones” as “a powerful general”— and they’re uniformly great, as are the plethora of guest features (Jadakiss, in particular, shines on “Broken Safety”). Yet it’s “House of Flying Daggers,” with its victorious J Dilla production and four killer Wu verses stacked back-to-back in under four minutes, which takes the cake for their best late-period posse cut. There’s Inspectah Deck, per usual, reliably kicking things off with assertive moxie. Next up is Raekwon, his presence so commanding and his pen game so ferocious (“Fly criteria, bury me in Africa/With whips and spears and rough diamonds out of Syria”) that the beat literally stops for a few seconds once he appears. Then there’s an animated Ghostface, who delivers this one deranged bar about how he “bust[s] n****s down with bats, swell up they joints” like he’s Joe Pesci in a Scorsese picture, capturing a kind of energy he later repeats on closer “The Badland,” when he begs The Chef to let him “go in there one more time and air these n****s out” for “old time’s sake”. The track wraps with Method Man, cooling things down by showing basic respect to his enemies, all while only a few lines previous he was threatening to “split your melon like I split the Dutch.” Here, they don’t sound like seniors or even veterans of their craft; they sound hungry, merciless, and ready to pounce.
In fact, if one more comparison to the cinema could be made, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is The Wild Bunch of hip-hop albums, at least in ethos: the degree to which everyone here seems to understand that this is the “last big job” of sorts — as it stands, this will most likely be the last notable release any of these people will be associated with — makes their appearances all the more thrilling, a grand kiss-off to a now antiquated subgenre the boys here helped popularize. In that sense, the best cuts are those that continue the grimy lineage of classic Wu, like the sinister “Sonny’s Missing,” which vividly details the slow torturous death of a rival drug dealer, or The Alchemist-produced “Surgical Gloves,” with its choppy chord progression working in Raekwon’s favor. The few duds, however, are quite noticeable in how often they work against this basic principle: Dr. Dre’s two tracks are trying way too hard on an album that’s not really asking for it (the backing percussions on “About Me” at least sound nice; “Catalina,” with that cheesy, faux-Latin flair, is completely unredeemable) and “We Will Rob You” wastes Slick Rick over a phoned-in chorus that plays on Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in the dumbest way possible — and it should also be noted that all three tracks follow one another at the tail-end, which doesn’t help alleviate the album’s already front-loaded nature. But what a ride those first 14-or-so tracks are, a glorious trek that, on its own, would have produced a sequel on equal footing with the original. As it stands, even with the bloat, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is the rare artistic follow-up guided by creative impulses rather than monetary ones, which, in and of itself, is a plenty lofty achievement in its own right.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.