Raekwon – “Only Built For Cuban Links Pt. 2” – @@@@@

Over the last few years, we’ve heard the cries that “hip-hop is
dead”. Perhaps a more accurate diagnosis is, “the hip-hop album is
dead”. Reason being, the days of multiple, seminal classic albums
being released each year are gone, as the music industry is now more
focused on single track sales and ringtones. Today, the label’s aren’t
concerned with whether or not an artist can make a “classic” album –
instead they want a collection of singles that they can market over
and over, like in the instance of Flo Rida’s R.O.O.T.S. LP, which is
packed with club-bangers and R&B tinged radio hits. With people
downloading albums illegally, now the labels can make more off of a
record if it has five or six hit singles that can top the Itunes
charts. That being said, what incentive does an artist have to create
a true piece of art at this point in the game if a label refuses to
get behind it? Thus, the hip-hop album is dead.

Things may have come full circle for the W, however. We’ve seen
the dramatic rise and fall of the Wu-Tang dynasty over the years, as
these naturally born, rugged and raw Staten Island rappers attempted
to change their styles to keep up with the rapidly shifting sound of
commercial hip-hop. Where at one point, the ten-man team could do no
wrong, soon they would find themselves on a slippery slope, watering
down their sound with radio ready singles, which in many cases only
hurt them. After an initial stint of give-or-take six consecutive,
classic LP’s, they slowly disappointed fans with several
less-than-stellar releases, leading many longtime fans to believe they
had fallen off for good.

This harsh dose of reality may have been the wake-up call that the
Wu-Tang Clan needed, however. With music industry sales decimated
across the board, the Wu have finally realized the error of their
ways, and have taken things back to basics with the release of
Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Links Part 2. They realize that the
mainstream media will never accept them as commercially polished
rappers or guys that make songs for the club, as this was never what
they were meant to be. With Rae’s follow-up to arguably the greatest
Wu-Tang album ever released, the stakes are higher than ever, so the
utmost care has been taken with in construction of this brilliant
companion piece to the original.

One of the first things noticeable is that Only Built For Cuban
Links Pt. 2 is not produced entirely by The RZA, like its predecessor.
While this might seem like a red flag, first consider that Irvin
Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back, not George Lucas. Raekwon
realizes that RZA – while still a brilliant producer – has a sound now
that has taken on a life of it’s own, evolving from what was found on
that first handful of classic Wu-Tang LP’s. As proven on Wu-Tang’s 8
Diagrams LP, that sound however, would not suit Raekwon’s sequel to
Only Built For Cuban Links II perfectly, which is why Rae assembled a
team of the best hip-hop producers of all time to craft the sound for
this LP.

It’s obvious that these guys hold the original Cuban Links LP in
the highest regard, as virtually everyone has come to the table with
their A-game, doing their best to emulate the sound found on the
predecessor. RZA himself does contribute to this album, but only on
three tracks. He’s actually responsible for perhaps the album’s
strongest, stand alone track, “New Wu”, which finds him in classic
form, looping a Magictones sample, and lacing it with dirty, dusty 36
Chamber style drums, as Rae, Ghost, and Meth effortlessly slip back
into Cuban Links mode. RZA chimes in later on the soulful “Fat Lady
Sings”, a minimalist track driven by a some light percussions and
strings, as Raekwon weaves a short-story atop it. And just when you
thought the theme from The Godfather had run it’s course in hip-hop,
RZA reinvents the wheel (and perhaps on no better album to do so) with
“Black Mozart”, which doesn’t sample the original, but the illest
cover you ever heard (by The Professionals), which RZA wraps his new
beat around.

Like RZA, J. Dilla also found ways around expensive samples, as his
contribution “House of Flying Daggers” kicks the album off, with an
aggressive classically styled Wu-Tang beat – brilliantly built around
a Four Tops cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. Here, each
Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, GZA, and Raekwon himself
rip the track to shreds, as if Wu-Tang never missed a beat. Ironically
– perhaps even symbolically – the dearly departed Dilla also produces
“Ason Jones”, Raekwon’s personal memorial track to Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Here, Dirty’s sampled words speak louder than ever, after the harsh
lessons learned by the Clan over the years: “If you try to jump and
crossover to the other side, people won’t understand that and they
don’t like that….That’s why they don’t be buying people’s music. See
Wu-Tang, we keeps it real….”

Legendary producer Marley Marl steps out of the shadows with “Pyrex
Vision”, a bubbling, simplistic loop finding Raekwon back in the
kitchen, intricately breaking down the cooking process, while his
Future Flavors partner Pete Rock precedes him with “Sonny’s Missing”,
a reworking of NY Finest’s “Questions”. Alchemist also fits right in
here perfectly, with the brooding “Surgical Gloves” which is rooted
within his usual trademark style. The most surprising addition however
is that of Dr. Dre, who defies all expectations – first by even
showing up. History is made here with the first ever Wu/Dre
collaboration – something that’s been rumored since the pre-Wu-Tang
Forever days. Dre’s polished style seems like the antithesis for a
Wu-Tang LP, but given the how seamless this LP is put together,
instead the opposite is true. A wink-and-a-nod sample from John Woo’s
The Killer (which helped knit the original OB4CL album together)
introduces Dre’s first contribution, “Catalina” (feat. Lyfe Jennings),
while later he delivers dark and lovely pianos on “About Me” (feat.
Busta Rhymes), giving the audience a snapshot of the Aftermath lineup
that never was.

Ultimately, this cohesion is what makes Raekwon’s Only Built For
Cuban Links Pt. 2 a classic. Much like Nas’ Illmatic – also produced
by a varying team of producers – the flow of the album and way it is
put together sounds like the work of one producer. But really it’s not
just the work of the producer, it’s the ear of Raekwon himself, who
assembled these producers and chose these beats. Surely we’ve seen
plenty of other albums with similar “dream team” lineups of producers,
but without the same results. From top to bottom, it’s Blu-Ray clear
that the utmost time, care and consideration was taken into the
construction of this LP, as if this was his first album. But again,
the stakes are that high now. Raekwon realizes that purpose of the
Wu-Tang Clan was never to churn out disposable club tracks that would
be forgotten about six months later. Their purpose, his purpose, was
to produce epic, hour long, almost symphonic classic hip-hop albums.
Once again he has done that; behold – the hip-hop album is alive. – DJ