Raekwon’s debut may be the best Wu Tang album, and is one of the great rap albums.
Now that To Pimp a Butterfly has temporarily stolen the thunder from other MCs, it’s the perfect time to look where hip-hop is headed by looking back. Almost 10 years old, Raekwon’s debut may be the best Wu Tang album, and is one of the great rap albums. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… gave us “mafioso rap,” a sub-genre of gangsta-rap and counterpart to West-Coast G-Funk. But the mafioso persona has lost currency in hip-hop, its recent adherents ranging from the insipid Magna Carta Holy Grail to the uninspired Mastermind.
Where does that leave Raekwon? The mafioso-type may get discarded or re-purposed à la Drake’s backpack-mafioso, but the exceptional storytelling that originally brought the character to life is as relevant today as it was ten years ago. Maybe even more relevant: what sets Kendrick Lamar apart from the crowd is not so much one-liners as narrative focus.
This focus is key to Cuban Linx. The album is a dialogue with John Woo’s 1989 gangster flick The Killer, in which a disillusioned assassin (Chow Yun-Fat) plans one final hit. Raekwon mirrors Chow’s lines in the opening track, swearing he’ll retire if the album doesn’t succeed. The album is full of cinematic mini-narratives: in “Spot Rusherz,” Raekwon and Ghostface hide out in a rival’s apartment to ambush him but end up bagging his mistress. More dramatically, the album closes with Raekwon confessing to a local thug before gunning him down.
The album goes where only rap can go, headfirst into the underworld of tasteless boasts and insults. Raekwon’s wordplay is sizzling, taunting his opponent on “Incarcerated Scarfaces” with, “Do you wanna battle for cash and see who’s Sun Tzu?” Sometimes the punchlines aren’t so much funny as they are menacing. In the final bars of “Can It Be All So Simple,” Ghostface Killah raps about “sunshine play[ing] a major part in the daytime” and “peace to mankind,” but leaves time for the sardonic Raekwon to interject: “Ghostface carries a black nine,” stretching the “i” in “nine” to a low growl. It may be the first time in rap history that a number sounded like a threat.
In fact, many of the best lines on the album go to GFK, who is more given to philosophizing than the headliner. For all his bravado, he taps into an intriguing variety of mafioso-ennui. It’s funny to hear him complain about “Having to rock knots/ Running up in spots and making shit hot,” but the fatigue is so concisely described you can’t believe it’s the same MC who gleefully describes gunshot wounds. “Ghostface” isn’t just an epithet; he’s been misreported dead or missing so many times that he’s become a living ghost.
But Ghostface’s scene stealing is infrequent enough that Raekwon remains in the spotlight. The real scene-stealer may be his own “director,” the RZA, who produced every song on the album in his distinctive aesthetic. If Cuban Linx can claim an overarching narrative, it’s on the strength of the production. Many of the signature techniques the RZA pioneered on the album are still in use today. For instance, the RZA takes outsized instrumentation and strips it down to its barest elements: the violins in “Knowledge God” give way to a spare, minor key piano figure; the fanfare in “Criminology,” gets whittled down to an ominous bell toll. This jarring alternation of melodic and non-melodic elements is currently the signature sound of GOOD Music.
The album’s title refers to a wrist chain popular among Wu Tang members. Raekwon theorized that among all chains, “Cuban links” were the toughest to break. But the full title was originally The title was originally meant to be Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz, but dropping that last word leaves the door open for all kinds of listeners and all kinds of imitators. Mafioso rap may not be dead; it’s just waiting for somebody to inherit the throne molded by this album.