The following is a track by track review of Raekwon’s seminal 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… posted by me over at RateYourMusic. I figured that since it is my favorite album of all time, I would break it down by song, so as to avoid jumping to hyperbolic conclusions that would arise in a more straightforward review. Of course, this format led to hyperbolic leaps as well, but oh well. I cleaned up the review a bit for this blog, hoping to make it more accessible to non hip hop loving readers. In fact, if there’s one album within this number one album countdown that I would want people to seek out if they haven’t heard it, it would be this. Maybe this post could be helpful in that regard. Or it’s just me rambling. Here we go…
1. Striving for Perfection
On this cinematic intro, we are introduced to our hosts, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, and find them disusing their ambitions both within and outside of the drug game with which their lives are devoted to. They have their backs against the wall, and assert themselves they need to do something bigger and more important than dealing drugs for the rest of their lives. This builds up a lot of tension for the album, and it’s a perfect length, at only a minute and a half long. It recalls both the intro for Ready to Die and Illmatic, while taking the positives from both and leaving the negatives. From the former, it creates the cinematic atmosphere without dragging on for too long, and it serves as a nice dialogue segue into the first track proper, much like Illmatic’s intro did for N.Y. State of Mind, although on that intro I don’t think Nas and AZ are talking about anything at all, just kicking random shit. It’s hard not to feel excited about the rest of the album after hearing this, whether it’s your first or thirtieth time around.
And then the piano loop kicks in… RZA’s beat here sounds like a Shimmy Shimmy Ya knock off, except it’s even better than that beat. Maybe nostalgia is clouding my vision, because this was the first track off of Cuban Linx that I really fell in love with, but it’s pretty hard to deny the awesomeness of the proceedings here. You have Rae, Ghost and even U-God dropping smooth mafioso lines over the infectious instrumental. This is exhibit A of RZA’s mastery of the piano loop, which on here is just a little four note jingle that repeats for a couple times, disappears, than reappears over the steady drum percussion. Rapping wise, this is a good microcosm of the album as a whole, with the three rappers dropping slang laced quotables faster than the listener can keep up, although half the time I’m not even trying because I’m so magnetized by that beat. Not as dark or intense as some of what would follow, but a perfect first track anyways.
3. Knowledge God
One of only three Raekwon solo tracks, and it’s probably the best. Raekwon weaves a story about a big time crime boss who “teaches his seed Wu-Tang karate” and names his pet piranha marijuana, among other things. This is just streamlined imagery that, depending on what you think of Cuban Linx, either adds up to the bigger picture or is just pointless information. Obviously I am in the first camp, and I find Rae’s second verse, which goes into detail about this Mike Lavonia character, one of the most fascinating on the album. This attention to detail and general avoidance of an overarching story line (a la one of Kool G Rap’s Mafioso bloodbaths) places this firmly in the post-Illmatic influence NYC rap. RZA’s beat doesn’t stand out as much as the first track, but how could it really. It’s still very good, with those cinematic strings adding a lot to the chorus. A bit more relaxed, perfectly sequenced with what would come next.
The most abrasive song on the album, this is just a 3 and a half minute gut punch that never gets old no matter how many times I hear it (it’s probably my most listened to track on the album). The Scarface dialogue in the beginning is perfect (funny aside- when I saw Scarface for the first time, and Pacino dropped those very lines, my first thought was “Oh, that’s the line from Criminology!” Even though obviously the movie came first. That’s how much of an impact this song has had on me). Ghostface is not kidding when he says “RZA baked the track and it’s militant”, this beat is more visceral than anything RZA’s ever done before, in my humble opinion. I think this was a subliminal influence on Mobb Deep’s G.O.D. Pt. III, as that song extensively sampled the score of Scarface, and created a heart-pumping cinematic vibe similar to RZA’s creation here. The changes in tempo, from swirling string laden madness to another keyboard loop, all over the same drums, is pure genius. Ghost and Rae drop short, urgent verses before getting out the way of the beat, which they smartly let ride out for the rest of the track. But those verses are wonderful, Ghost’s especially, ending on a bit of a mindfuck- “Then analyze my soundtrack for satisfaction/You react like a flashback chain reaction”. Unbelievable.
5. Incarcerated Scarfaces
Opens with dialogue from The Killer, and although I haven’t seen that film yet, I know when I do I will quickly identify these lines with this song. The drum loop than kicks in, and we are treated to another Rae solo joint, this time more aggressive, beatwise, than the calculating Knowledge God. The hook is great (“We can trade places get lifted in the staircases”) and could be considered a homage to Rae’s people who are locked up, not unlike Nas’s One Love, but he doesn’t stick to the theme that closely. Plenty of memorable one offs here (“You rollin like Trump, you get your meat lumped”) and RZA’s beat, while not having the same depth of sampling and variety as the other tracks, knocks righteously. Another track I played a lot when I first discovered the album.
6. Rainy Dayz
And this one took a little longer for me to appreciate, though now I see it as one of the best songs on the album (aka, every other song on the album). The beat is seriously pumping, with dope drum breaks coupled with more cinematic strings to create a dark yet weirdly danceable concoction. The fact that this fits perfectly on a workout playlist with Radiohead’s Idioteque, Björk’s Hyperballad, and Burial’s Archangel makes me wonder how this song would fare on a dancefloor, albeit in a depressing ass club. It was an obvious influence on Mobb Deep’s Quiet Storm, whether Havoc heard this song or not, as both are moody adrenaline shots connected by the theme of bad weather. The sung chorus by Blue Raspberry is probably what kept me at arm’s length at first, though I’ve come around on it completely, and now think it’s the track’s most important element. I like to imagine she’s singing about Rae and Ghost, who have now become completely immersed in the street life. Their verses are unsurprisingly dope, I think Rae outshines Ghost on here, with a dope opening line- “What bring rain hail snow and earthquakes/The beat breaks, cause all my niggas to break, son”. Again, a perfect description of the beat.
7. Guillotine (Swordz)
The first true posse cut of the album, as it has more than 2 guest spots (if that’s how one defines a posse cut). Inspectah Deck gets the ball rolling, as he usually does, and murders shit, again how he usually does. Ghost is up next, and he follows suit. Raekwon has a lot to live up to with his verse, but he manages to not get overshadowed by his co-hosts, dropping my favorite line of the song, and a line that sums up a lot about what I like about Rae’s style of rapping- “Fake niggas don’t get turns”. Simple, straight to the point and doesn’t rely on other lines to bookend it or place it in context. Again, it’s kind of stream of conscious, the exact opposite of GZA, whose lines always sound calculated and delivered for maximum effectiveness. His verse on here is actually one of my favorites of his, even if it’s short. Ok now lets’ talk about RZA’s instrumental, maybe the true highlight of the song. Wu fans will recognize it as an intro beat on Method Man’s Tical, and all I can say is thank God RZA didn’t just throw it away. Those Eastern strings, with those drums, oh shit. Flawless beat, how he manages to cook up these masterpieces one after another without them sounding alike is beyond me, probably why he burnt out after Wu Tang Forever.
8. Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)
Full disclosure- I like this more than the original (which appeared on Enter the Wu Tang [36 Chambers]). The beat is basically the same, but just better. And Rae and Ghost drop more memorable verses, at least to my ears. With that being said, this is one of the weaker tracks on the album, though it’s far from filler and in fact it’s a nice breather after the assault of the previous two songs.
9. Shark Niggas (Biters)
Everyone gets upset about this little skit, since our hosts all but directly call out The Notorious B.I.G. for biting off of Nas’s Illmatic cover. On the surface.. it’s a realistic complaint, but this crosses into the murky waters of “who’s biting who”, and the finger could easily be pointed back at Rae and Ghost for biting Biggie. Regardless, I’ve never been to mad at this skit like some people seem to be, it’s just business as usual.
10. Ice Water
Obviously, they’re talking about cocaine (Ghost even says on the intro “sniff your brains out, all my Al Capone/Al Pacino niggas). It should be noted here that if you don’t like music about drugs or dug dealing, this might not be a great album to listen to. Hell, we even hear Raekwon and Ghostface sniffing coke on the intro to Knowledge God (they most likely weren’t actually sniffing cocaine, but the affect it gives off is unsetting). Anyways, back to Ice Water- the beat is slamming, with a haunting vocal sample playing throughout, making an interesting parallel to the female vocal sample on Verbal Intercourse. Ghost sets it off with a mighty fine verse before handing it off to Cappadonna, making his first of two appearances on the album. This is the less memorable of the two, but he sounds pretty good over one of the best beats he’s ever been given the chance to rap over. Rae bats cleanup and drops this famous line- “Pulling bleach out, trying to throw it in my eyesight/ What the fuck is on your mind?” which The Notorious B.I.G. would reference later on Kick in the Door, a subliminal shot at the many New York rappers Biggie thought were jealous of his fame. I’ve always felt this track was underrated, tucked in the middle of the album surrounded by other classics.
11. Glaciers of Ice
This is another track that took a little while to grow on me though of course now I see it as another one of the album’s many crown jewels. RZA’s beat here is just magnificent, with a simple 1-1-2 drum loop played under a guitar sample, or something, with gunfire, string/harp snatches, and female vocals on the hook (possibly from Blue Raspberry, hard to tell) intertwining in the background to create a claustrophobic, high octane atmosphere. The beat aims high and sounds like it could fall apart at any second, hip hop’s equivalent of OK Computer schizophrenia madness. The skit at the beginning is also pretty funny, listen to Ghostface get genuinely excited talking about shoes. Finally, this song is off the charts lyrically, like most other songs on the album, but I’ve always really liked how Ghostface and Rae, Ghost especially, sound over a faster moving beat. But then I hear the next song and change my mind entirely…
12. Verbal Intercourse
The best word to describe this song is ethereal. Not exactly what you were expecting from a Wu-Tang album, huh? Well, that’s the effect the female vocal sample gives off, and while the constant moaning and mumbling sounded distracting to me at first, to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics, I’ve come to love it as one of RZA’s most daring and brilliant samples. Nas shows up on here to drop a famous guest verse, as he’s the first non Wu member to appear on a Wu track, while Raekwon and Ghostface likewise are at the top of their games. Listen to Ghostface get abstract in a way only Ghost can with his sudden changes in direction- what starts off as a verse about the stress of the drug game turns into streamlined prison imagery, from vests made out of phonebooks, sharpened toothbrushes and clean-looking inmates getting “bashed trying to turn a dial”. And he ends with a roundabout statement that very well sums up the track- “Me Nas and Rae, got the best product on the block”. No doubt.
13. Wisdom Body
Here’s the only song on the album I never truly loved. Ghostface Killah’s solo track is not so bad as it is just plain lazy. Then again, on another album this wouldn’t be so terrible, and the fact that it doesn’t scale to the heights of the other tracks is hardly a complaint. It’s short enough. The pimp dialogue in the beginning perhaps makes the whole thing misogynistic, but Ghost avoids treading down the same path. The beat reminds me a bit of Scarface’s My Block for some reason.
14. Spot Rusherz
I always like how this was sequenced right after Ghost’s solo outing, reminds me of how Sucka Nigga directly followed 8 Million Stories on Midnight Marauders. This is one of the finest story telling tracks in all of hip hop history, and it’s a fairly simple story at that. What I’ve come to love about this song is that it’s relentlessly forward moving, detail after detail, and it comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, unlike one of Biggie’s mafioso tales or Kool G Rap’s high body count outings. You might not be able to follow it on first listening, and even after hearing it countless times, it still flies right past.
15. Ice Cream
Another beat that sounds outside of RZA’s comfort zone. With the piano loop, faint vocal sample and lack of grimy drums, this sounds more like a Pete Rock beat from The Main Ingredient than something out of the 36 Chambers. Like I’m even complaining though- it’s another perfect instrumental, plain and simple. It’s a song about the ladies, though perhaps it shouldn’t be for the ladies, considering some of the lines dropped on here. Ghost and Rae keep things PG for the most part, with Rae dropping more perfect Rae-esque one offs- “You looking good fly colored Asian”. Than Cappadonna shows up and steals the show with some hilariously vulgar lines- “Ice cream you got me falling out like a cripple/ I love you like I love my dick size” than fantasizes about getting a handjob, and to cap things off, ends with “I jism like a giant, break wombs out of the socket”. Classy. Method Man has hook duties but contributes a quasi verse at the end that’s about as dirty as Cappadonna’s, albeit not as funny. A perfect song.
The most expansive posse cut on the album, with Ghost, Masta Killa, Method Man and RZA all contributing verses alongside our host. The skit at the beginning is a little long, I can see someone getting frustrated by it on first listen, but at this point it’s become so engrained as a part of the track in my head that I couldn’t do without it. Plus I would take that over some silly Kung Fu dialogue a la Liquid Swords any day of the week. Anyways, yet another dope RZA beat (yawn) with particular emphasis on the piano this time around. Not much else I can say at this point, other than classic.
17. Heaven & Hell
And so slowly the album begins to wind down. This track is easily the most downbeat on the album, with Blue Raspberry showing up again to deliver some sad background vocals on the hook. The beat is slow rolling, with our hosts trading bars mid verse like they did on Mobb Deep’s Right Back at You. A continuation of sorts to Rainy Dayz, our hosts tackle the trials and tribulations of the drug game, and as things start to slow down, our stars begin to reflect a bit on the lives they lead. Reminds me a bit of The Soul Controller, the best track that wasn’t on Ghostface Killah’s Ironman (sample wars, SMH). Not a track I listen to often, but perfect in context of the album.
18. North Star (Jewels)
Labeled as a bonus track, it’s basically a continuation of Heaven & Hell, sans Ghostface. Instead, that guy from Ghost’s All That I Got is You shows up to reminisce about Raekwon’s childhood. It’s sweet, if kind of random, and eventually Rae decides he better start rapping before all the listeners tune out. And so, the album closes on a bit of a low note, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Like the end credits to a great film, you are still glued in your seat to watch them long after the action has ended.
The playlist this year is record breaking for me- the most non hip hop tracks so far, with five. Two of those are from my number two album of the year, Björk’s Post. Army of Me fits in with the muscular fatalism of the year’s best hip hop, making an especially interesting listening companion with Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones Pt. II, while Hyperballad is just the best song ever. D’Angelo gives neo-soul a huge boost with his debut album, which combines soul crooning with rap flavored beats and verse structure. Moby’s soaring God Moving Over the Face of the Waters gets on for its breathtaking use in the film Heat’s final moments, and PJ Harvey brings us her love, making us feel uncomfortable in the process. At the end of the day though, it was the year of the Wu-Tang Clan, with GZA/Genius and ODB representing with highlights off their finest albums.
Big L- Let ‘Em Have It “L”
Björk- Army of Me
GZA/Genius featuring Ghosftace Killah, Killah Priest & RZA- 4th Chamber
Kool G Rap featuring MF Grimm- Take ‘Em To War
Mobb Deep- Shook Ones Pt. II
God Moving Over the Face of the Waters- Moby
Ol’ Dirty Bastard- Brooklyn Zoo
PJ Harvey- To Bring You My Love
Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah- Criminology
Raekwon featuring Ghostface Killah, Method Man & Cappadonna- Ice Cream
The Roots- Mellow My Man
2Pac- So Many Tears