Happy 10th Anniversary to Raekwon’s fourth studio album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, originally released September 8, 2009.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is proof that you can come home again. It can be a long, complicated process filled with stops and starts, but it is possible for an artist to recapture what made them great. Corey “Raekwon” Woods accomplished this feat a decade ago when he released his fourth solo effort.
Raekwon helped the Wu-Tang Clan change the game for a second time when he released his debut album Only Built For Cuban Linx… (1995), the third and arguably best of the initial salvo of Wu-Tang solo releases. Don’t get me wrong, Method Man’s Tical (1994) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995) were both certified bangers, but the first Cuban Linx, released in the late summer of 1995, took the Wu to the next level. It was a crime-inspired masterpiece led by Raekwon and co-piloted by Ghostface Killah, who created vivid and cinematic sonic narratives. It’s among the greatest hip-hop albums ever released.
Four years later, Raekwon followed that initial work of genius with Immobilarity (1999), which… wasn’t so good. In fact, I’d hazard to say it was the first below average album released by one of the Clan members. RZA, who’d produced Cuban Linx in its entirely, had no input. More baffling was the complete absence of Ghostface. Four years later, Rae released The Lex Diamonds Story (2003), which was a step up in quality, but ultimately forgettable. There was no still no involvement from RZA, but at least there were a couple of appearances by Ghostface.
Raekwon first announced he was recording a sequel to his beloved debut album in 2005. From the outset, efforts were made to make sure that this would be a worthy continuation. For one, it was to be executive produced by RZA and Busta Rhymes. RZA’s involvement always made for better Wu-Tang affiliated albums, and Busta was an avowed superfan of OB4CL. Things got even more interesting when it appeared that the album was going to come out through Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, which Busta was signed to at the time. The idea of Raekwon and hip-hop’s first and foremost super-producer solidified the hype of the release.
And then things got difficult. For one, even during the mid ’00s, Dre was becoming known for signing artists to his label, only to have their projects never see the light of day. When it looked like Dre was going to be focusing on other priorities, Raekwon left Aftermath and continued to piece together the album on his own.
Later, after the announcement of a new Wu-Tang Clan album, 8 Diagrams, in 2007, the recording process stopped so that Raekwon could focus his energy on the group. However, RZA and Raekwon started publicly feuding, particularly over the quality of the beats on 8 Diagrams. Suddenly, RZA’s contributions to OB4CL2 seemed to be in danger.
But by proverbial hook or crook, Raekwon kept soldiering through and put together enough material (and then some) to release OB4CL2. None of the seams show on the finished product, as Rae put together an album that’s cohesive in theme and recaptured what made him beloved as a solo artist in the ’90s.
The album is nearly perfect in its construction and sequencing. It features a whole host of producers, from RZA and Dr. Dre, to the departed J Dilla, to East Coast hip-hop stalwarts like Erick Sermon and Scram Jones, to The Alchemist, who was really coming into his own at the time. OB4CL2 is also a lyrical tour-de-force.
As with many Wu-Tang related albums, it would be easy to fill this tribute with quotes from all of the outstanding performances on this album, both by Raekwon and from the whole host of guests who grace the Chef’s tracks. The verses and production honor all eras of the Clan, from the 36 Chambers to the Wu-Gambinos, while still presenting a look at what Raekwon had grown into at that point.
One of the reasons that OB4CL2 succeeds is that it recaptures the epic feel of the Clan’s early releases. Albums like Tical, Return to the 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Ironman, and of course the first OB4CL felt like events when they dropped. But of the many solo albums that came from the camp post-Wu-Tang Forever (1997), as good as many of them are, very few were ambitious in their scope. With OB4CL2, Raekwon brought some grandeur back to the Wu-Tang’s solo albums.
Raekwon finds this majesty in what would seem like the project’s smaller moments. He’s a storytelling virtuoso, transforming even the briefest of tracks into operatic classics. His forte has always been creating gritty and vaguely disturbing tales of street violence and he continues to do so throughout OB4CL2.
Take “Fat Lady Sings,” where Raekwon describes a brief and fatal street fight between two dealers. He adds the small details of the altercation, making it easy to envision the whole scene unfolding like a short film. Raekwon also uses an orthodox “A-B-C-A” rhyme pattern from bar to bar, flexing over a loop from Zulema’s “If This World Were Mine.” “Sonny’s Missing” is in the similar vein, echoing a theme throughout the album where drug dealers frequently meet a horrific fate. The Pete Rock-produced track starts with the discovery of Sonny’s corpse, and flashes back to his gruesome interrogation by rivals.
Raekwon plays to his strengths for much of OB4CL2, describing moving large amounts of weight on tracks like the Marley Marl-produced “Pyrex Visions” and the Erick Sermon-helmed “Baggin’ Crack.” “Rubber Gloves” is the most musically unorthodox song on the album. Created by The Alchemist, the abstract-sounding beat is composed of a jumble of synthesizer hits. Raekwon is still able to apply his equally unorthodox delivery to the song, describing tracking down a rival shooter who killed one of his friends as well as some innocent children during a deadly shoot-out.
“Gihad” is probably the album’s best track, with Raekwon kicking a grimy tale of surviving the crime-infested streets of his neighborhood. Rae’s partner-in-crime is in funny form, kicking an irreverent and hyper-detailed verse that only Tony Starks could pull off. Ghost explains running afoul of one of his young homies after being caught receiving oral pleasure from the former’s girlfriend. It’s equally unsettling and hilarious, and Ghost’s adlibs towards the end of song are some of his best.
At other times, Raekwon takes the album back to the earliest days of the Clan, to the days of when their albums were inspired by Shaw Brothers or Gordon Liu flicks. “House of the Flying Daggers,” produced by J Dilla, is a raucous track that moves with almost militaristic intensity. Clan members Inspektah Deck, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man all join Rae on the track, each supplying monstrous verses. Rae describes himself as “a true don, only I could do wrong / Rock fitted hats, get crack money and drive a sick blue joint,” while Mr. Meth assures naysayers, “Y'all n****s ain’t s**t to us, still a pistol bust / Split your melon like I split the Dutch.”
“Black Mozart” is like a darker sequel to “C.R.E.A.M.,” with Rae and Deck spitting that “secret indictment s**t” over a gothic, haunting loop of Jesús Acosta & The Professionals take on the “Theme From the Godfather.” The two remind listeners of their long and distinguished histories as street soldiers, as Raekwon raps, “Black, yo, I been hustling since n****s was busting guns / And scuffling, and jumping n****s over some coats.” Deck’s verse, where he recounts his younger years stalking the streets of Staten Island, draping in fatigues and rocking a boom-box on the handlebars of his bike, is one of his best and most visually evocative.
OB4CL2 also features strong performances by rappers from outside of the Clan. The LOX’s Styles P and Jadakiss appear on the rugged, Scram Jones-produced “Broken Safety,” where Jada declares, “F**k saving hip-hop, we’re bringing the streets back.” “Have Mercy” features an excellent verse from Philly’s Beanie Sigel. Beans assumes the role of a hardened criminal now incarcerated for the rest of his life. Chastened and full of regret, he seeks to find to a way to teach his son not to make the same mistakes that he did and place more value on the lives of others, as well as his own.
On “About Me” (occasionally credited as “N***a Me”), Busta Rhymes restrains his bombastic style, instead delivering a sinister verse while using a gravelly growl. One of two Dr. Dre produced tracks on the album, the song originally featured a verse from The Game. I personally prefer the Busta version. The other Dre-produced track, “Catalina,” features the Chef flowing smoothly over a steel-drum inflected beat, but it’s hampered a bit by the hook, sung by Lyfe Jennings.
“We Will Rob You” is another of the album’s highlights. Raekwon, GZA, and Masta Killa deliver exceptional verses and a track that takes samples from Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” and the theme from Across 110th Street. This time, it’s GZA who’s the star of the song, as he describes a harrowing and potentially deadly interaction with the NYPD, narrowly escaping with his life. The performances are enough to forgive an extremely goofy hook by Slick Rick; lifting the chorus to the Queen anthem was not a sound decision.
Amidst the tales of moving weight and street violence, Raekwon delivers a heartfelt dedication to Wu-Tang Clan’s fallen soldier Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Ason Jones.” Fittingly produced by the deceased J Dilla, Raekwon reminisces about his long-time friend, describing his talents and eccentricities, and everything that made him a unique individual. The “hook” features ODB speaking in his own words. Taken from snippets of an old interview, he explains the importance of him, as a rapper, remaining true to his upbringing, and “keeping it real” in the truest sense.
There was a good amount of material recorded for OB4CL2, and enough of it didn’t make the cut to nearly make a separate album. Some of the songs appeared on Wu-Massacre (2010), a collaborative album between Raekwon, Ghostface, and Method Man, released six months later. Other material, like “Badlands,” “Walk With Me,” “Never Matters to You” (featuring Bun B), and “Rock Stars,” appeared on the “Gold Edition,” released a little under a year later.
OB4CL2 sparked a successful third act for Raekwon’s solo career. His subsequent albums, from Shao-Lin Vs. Wu-Tang (2011), to F.I.L.A. (2015), to The Wild (2017) have all been much more focused endeavors. Even though it appeared to be an arduous process to get OB4CL2 completed, it was well worth the effort. As is the case with music, it doesn’t really matter how the sausage gets made, as long as it turns out delicious.