Reading about hip hop, and classic, seminal hip hop albums, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx pops up a lot. Maybe it’s the awkwardly intriguing title that makes me notice it seemingly more than other titles. But for whatever reason, it always stands out. I always knew I would get around to it one day. Then, I read that there was documentary being made about its making. Sure, it’s a doc that needs to be crowd funded, but it’s still an idea that generated a good amount of media attention. Which is what made me finally listen to Raekwon and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Not a sketch, but still as pointless as every single sketch ever included on a hip hop album, the thesis statement that is the spoken word declaration of Striving for Perfection is nothing more than a minute and 44 second delay before getting to the real start of this record. And when Knuckleheadz is so cool, why delay getting to this point at all? The chilled bass line, the acoustic, loose snare beat, the rapid fire, non stop rhymes. This is everything I wanted from this album, and we’re only at track two!
With a sample straight off a 70s blackspolitation soundtrack, before getting back into the Asian influenced sound of the Wu-Tang Clan, Criminology sounds like the song is challenging you to a fight. And it’s a challenge you’d feel like you have to accept, even though you know you’ll come off second best.
Incarcerated Scarfaces makes me notice something about this album in general, the beats and production provided by RZA are consistently simple, sparse, minimalist and all the better for it. Raekewon, and the pretty constant presence of Ghostface Killah, are more than up to carrying these songs and taking care of the heavy lifting. Their rhymes and delivery should be front and centre, not overly elaborate beats and samples.
Once that beat and sample background does get a little prominent in Rainy Dayz, it kind of proves my above point. Raekwon and Ghostface are still at their best, but the vocal hook in the choruses borings the song to a bit of a halt every time it appears. Most of the song is great, but that sample really is the first real production misstep in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Usually, when an album starts to blur from one track into the next, it’s a sign of me not paying attention, or just generally being bored by a record’s samieness. But with Cuban Linx, as Guillotine leads into Ice Water, which makes its way to Glaciers of Ice before getting to Verbal Intercourse, it’s a blending that has nothing to do with being bored, and everything to do with this complete sound of this album as a whole. These songs are in this order for a good reason, with Cuban Linx following a clear sonic plot.
The indulgent sketch intros and outros, or little spoken word asides are inessential at best. And when an album is closing in at almost 100 minutes, it’s not as if it needs to be padded out. I just don’t get this aspect of 90s hip and doubt I ever will. What in Raekwon’s mind made him think that we needed a 60 second long speed bump in between Ice Cream and Wu-Gambinos? Because these are two really great, aggressive rap songs independently, that would have been on a whole other level without that bullshit momentum killer in between.
Combining 70s soul music and 70s B-grade kung-fu movies was a weird combination that had already proven a winner on the Wu-Tangs collective debut, and solo releases from a few of its members. But that never lessened the impact it had when it worked well on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. I haven’t heard nearly enough of the Wu-Tang Clan be able to differentiate them by sound alone, but if the rest of them are half as good solo as Raekwon, I can see myself having a lot of music to catch up on.