Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt.II
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II was legendary before it was real. Raekwon told people that the album was done back in 2006, when Busta Rhymes was still executive producing it for Aftermath. After 2007 came and went without a trace of it, OB4CL2 joined the ever-growing list of rap album ghost stories, alongside Detox and Swift & Changeable and, at the time, Sir Luscious Leftfoot. It was a shrunken head nailed to Dr. Dre’s office door, warning everyone against getting involved with him. It was another lost masterpiece by a late-period artist—one that we all secretly knew wouId’ve been a disappointment, had it ever seen the light of day. It meant more as a totem—or, worse, a punch line—than as an actual, possible collection of music. It was a specter; a fable; a death knell. Except, of course, that it wasn’t.
The real story (or, at least, the version of it I choose to believe) behind the release of OB4CL2 is much less sensational, and much more exciting. It’s this: Raekwon simply wanted to make a classic. “I didn’t want to rush it. I wasn’t in need of money when I made this album. I wanted to actually piece this album correctly,” he told Hip Hop Official in July 2009, right around the time the album got an official release date and tracklist after years of stalling out. Those might seem like routine concerns at face value, but they’re backed up by five years of digging his heels in; working and reworking the vision of the album; wrangling an A-list team of producers, then demanding that they bring fire; ensuring that the guest spots were lean and powerful; and tightening each song to a point where it could not be improved. In other words, Rae spent five years doing everything that every artist should do for an album, but few actually do. And Rae’s work pays off in his album’s unmatched depth, magnitude, and nuance. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is not just a record; it’s the Great American Novel.
Would OB4CL2 have received the same attention if it had taken another name? Probably not. But the reverse is also true: Raekwon chose to invoke the name of his solo debut because he needed the material to live up to his best efforts. It was a pragmatic way to hold himself accountable to his own legacy. His audience would demand that it live up to its title—so much that the reputation of the original Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was probably even at stake—therefore Raekwon would have to make damn sure that it did. That helps account for OB4CL2’s anachronistic quality. It feels vital, but not necessarily timely. That’s because its lineage has less to do with the market, and more to do with Rae digging in the same holes he’s been digging in forever, and the result is a piece of work that stands outside of time. Wu-Tang is a brand, sure, but in order to capitalize on its commercial value, Rae had to find all kinds of new possibilities in the old blueprint.
So, OB4CL2 is also a genre work, in the way that Motherless Brooklyn or Brick is each a work of noir: It’s steeped in the Wu-Tang legacy, but pushes at the edges of that tradition at every opportunity. “Cold Outside,” for example, is analogous to the original Cuban Linx’s “Rainy Dayz”—they’re both mournful, weather-referencing songs that hold roughly the same place in each album’s starting line-up. “Rainy Dayz” was itself an analog to Enter the Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be All So Simple.” But, if you take look at that trilogy’s evolution of sound, you get a sense of two decades’ progression. “Can It Be All So Simple” was scarcely more than a loping bass line, Gladys Knight sample, and some muffled snares. On “Rainy Dayz,” the low end takes a back seat while the violins from Michael Jackson’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” dominate the song; Blue Raspberry sings the hook live; the sound of rain is heard throughout the back half of the song; and high-pitched electronic squeals frequently interrupt the music. More than just a wistful track, it’s a dizzying experience. But even “Rainy Dayz” is sleek as hell compared to “Cold Outside.”
“Cold Outside” is buoyed by a similar vocal as the other cuts, this time by a dude named Suga Bang Bang, whose most notorious appearance on record before this was on the hook for Iron Flag’s “In the Hood.” Compared to the spare composition of “Can It Be So Simple,” or the hallucinatory “Rainy Dayz,” the production on “Cold Weather” is a cacophonous mess—the low end is nearly absent; the tempo surges in arbitrary places; and the song is driven by something that sounds like a Casio keyboard on a horn setting, playing off-rhythm. The progression from “Can It All Be So Simple” to “Rainy Dayz” to “Cold Outside” is a progression from simplicity to complexity, not unlike Shakespeare’s progression from Romeo & Juliet to Hamlet to King Lear. It’s no coincidence it to Rae and his collaborators seven times as long to get from B to C than it did to get from A to B.
In order for Cuban Linx II to even begin to work as a piece, it had to be at least partly a kaleidoscope of the Wu’s history. On that, it delivers expertly, from the familiar narration bookending the album to a Rae, Ghost & Meth collaboration so good it inspired a full album follow-up to the requisite Ol’ Dirty Bastard tribute. On a lesser album, “Ason Jones” would be a toss away end track. On OB4CL2, it’s strong enough to buoy the second half of the album with little more than two verses by Rae and a couple of ODB interview excerpts. Rae paints Ol’ Dirty warmly, as a man who cooked, cleaned, and smelled of Balantine—the types of things that seem antithetical to Dirt Dogg’s whole image—and assigns the track one of the album’s three coveted Dilla beats. Giving it such care, Rae energizes a track that could have merely been a rote gesture. Over and over, OB4CL2 sees Rae reigniting Wu ephemera with new fire.
On the flip side, elements of Cuban Linx II constantly jar expectations of a Wu album. “House of Flying Daggers” showcases one of Dilla’s best posthumous beats, and the excerpt from The Four Tops’ version of “Eleanor Rigby” sets up for Scram Jones’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sample on the album closer. Raekwon famously spoke out against RZA’s production on Wu-Tang’s 2007 album, 8 Diagrams. In an interview with Miss Info, he called the RZA “a hip-hop hippie,” saying, “he’s trying to do too much of this guitar shit, like he’s got a guitar on his fucking back.” But OB4CL2 cannibalizes 8 Diagrams’ “guitar shit” into stuff like “House of Flying Daggers,” Scram Jones’ “Kiss the Ring,” and The Alchemist’s Styx-biting “Surgical Gloves”—all of which gives the album a glammy edge that’s out of step with prior Wu-releases.
There are solid guest spots by Beanie Sigel, Slick Rick, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss and Styles P—all of whom could’ve been chosen for the album based purely on the timbre of their voices. In particular, Jada and Beanie come out of the gates on their respective tracks by challenging the rhythm and cadence of the whole album. Jadakiss growls his way through the opening bars of “Broken Safety” with the kind of braggadocio that the Wu usually sublimates, twisting gripes about the down economy into lines like, “Funerals are still affordable/ I’m better than all of you.” On Beanie Sigel’s verse, the rigid structure of his rhymes sticks out on album of stream-of-consciousness raps. In contrast to Rae’s loose free-association, Beanie takes four bars to starkly emulate the metronome of an incarcerated mind: “My days gettin’ shorter/ My nights gettin’ longer/ My cell gettin’ smaller/ My son gettin’ taller.”
Whereas the tension that defined the original Cuban Linx grew out of Raekwon and his supporting cast’s gangster role-playing, the tension that riddles its sequel is almost entirely artistic. The pull between the Wu-Tang legacy and Raekwon’s forward thinking is mirrored on a small scale by, say, the tug between Dr. Dre and Mark Batson’s commercial-leaning, piano-driven beat on “Catalina” and the way Rae’s verses unfurl spasmodically, with the action turning every couple of seconds. In order to be successful, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II had to play servant to two masters, the past and the future, and when “the past” means two classic albums and countless expectations from legions of fans, of course it’s going to take five years for Raekwon to get it right. The only way he could have pulled it off was by doing exactly what he did—attending closely to every sound, every word.
-Martin Brown, 2010