Released: August 5, 1995
The Wu-Tang Clan’s assault on mainstream hip-hop in the mid-90s didn’t resemble a siege so much as blitzkrieg; following the release of their highly influential debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Clan’s individual members quickly used the collective’s debut as a springboard to launch their own solo careers. Method Man and his debut Tical went first to great commercial and critical success and then the Ol’ Dirty Bastard came through with Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version which matched or surpassed Tical’s success depending on who you ask. Meanwhile, a 25 year old Corey Woods, aka Raekwon, was sitting on the side-lines waiting for his turn to make a mark. The hiphop scene in the middle of 1995 was nothing like what it was when the Clan dropped 36 Chambers – in the brief two years since then, a certain Notorious B.I.G had made quite the impression and an aspiring youngster named Nas was also making his steady ascent to the top. In fact, just a little over a month before Raekwon’s debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was released, another Mafioso themed album had appeared on the charts – Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. If the pressure wasn’t on before, it certainly was now; Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… had to hit a home run if it wanted to continue the Clan’s legacy. In this endeavour, both album and artist were remarkably successful – almost two decades later, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is remembered as an instant classic, and considered one of the most accessible and enjoyable of the first generation of Wu solo albums.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is especially interesting in the context of its peers; it is remarkably similar to the albums that came before it, but just different enough for the listener to pick up on. A case in point – Reasonable Doubt also had a similar Mafioso theme and the whole concept of the urban life and glorification of the gangsta life was fast approaching saturation in the mainstream. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… managed to evade those challenges by adding in an element that the previous albums lacked – a narrative. The story told in Raekwon’s debut classic isn’t the most original story, nor is it told particularly coherently, indeed it’s easy to forget that there even is a story after the first handful of tracks, but regardless, the narrative idea is absolutely crucial in shaping the album. Combined with the RZA’s apparently Tarantino influenced soundtrack styled production, the narrative concept in the project gave the album a cinematic feel – suddenly, it was no longer just a simple story about a pair youths trying to make it big in the harsh city, but now it was this larger than life tale about, well, two youths overcoming all odds and obstacles to thrive in the city. The idea essentially revolves around how the right production and the right kind of narrative, lyrical flow can transform a simple storytelling idea into something much grander simply by changing the lens through which the audience sees the story.
While the album itself is considerably more than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves aren’t too shabby. Raekwon’s style has always been a little unusual – his vocabulary itself is equal parts New York/Staten Island slang, shaolin movie references and Five-Percenter allusions and it is employed in a manner that is sometimes more metaphorical than literally. This can make deciphering the verses themselves a little challenging but not as much as one might initially assume – even when the exact meaning of a line is lost, the meaning and emotion in the verse itself is rarely confused and the fact that it is all delivered with an impeccable flow makes the entire listening experience very smooth from a lyrical standpoint at least. Of course, no discussion of the album’s vocal aspect could be complete without mentioning the mighty Ghostface Killah. Credited as the album’s co-star, he appears on as many tracks as Raekwon himself, and even gets his own solo track. In terms of style, there isn’t as much to differentiate the two men though Raekwon’s verses tend to be more laidback and contemplative while Ghost is the more energetic and emphatic of the two. Between the two of them, they managed to carry the album’s story ably though their narrative abilities seem to manifest more on the skits and track intros than in the verses themselves. Still, it would be fair to say that without Ghost, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… would only be half the album it turned out to be.
Having said that, if the narration is half of the album’s unique, much discussed ‘cinematic’ feel, then surely the production is the other half. The RZA, under his five year plan, oversees this project and his influence is clear throughout the album. The minimalism that was a hallmark of the 36 Chambers is evident throughout the album, but not on every single track. While the majority of the tracks stay true to the simple production style that the RZA used to great effect in the 36 Chambers they are enhanced to be more instrumental and more melodic with the overall effect being that it ends up creating a ‘soundtrack-like’ sound. The second half of the album also makes use of a more advanced sampling style to amazing effect – ‘Verbal Intercourse’ and ‘Ice Water’ are among the best tracks on the album and in no small part due to the haunting vocals of their respective samples.
Despite all of this however, the album feels like it is lacking in something though it is hard to pinpoint what exactly that is. The album feels muted in some ways, as though it is lacking in energy. This is most pronounced in the album’s climax with tracks like ‘Guillotine [Swordz]’ sounding relatively dull considering the verses themselves. Some part of this album-wide malaise is because of the production – that same cinematic effect mentioned above is not perfectly suited to hiphop’s verse based delivery, or at least not with this particular combination of artist and album. The bigger part of the problem is that neither Ghostface nor Raekwon change their styles very much throughout the album. It might be an exaggeration to say that it sounds like they are repeating different parts of the same verse over different beats throughout the album, but not by much. The album also suffers from some pacing issues – while the skits and lengthy intros and outros do give the album that narrative flavour, they also slow the album down considerably, which is made worse by the album’s already significant length. These are however, all rather minor concerns in the bigger picture – most listeners will never notice any of this on a first listen through and fewer still will fully drop the album because of it. In the end, the album is a worthy time investment to anyone who enjoyed hiphop in the 90s. There is a great deal of nostalgia just waiting be rediscovered in these tracks and it though its creator’s career didn’t end up quite where everyone believed it would at the time, it is nevertheless one of the best albums in hiphop’s golden decade.
|Striving For Perfection||RZA||3.0|
|Can It Be All So Simple||RZA||4.0|
|Glaciers of Ice||RZA||5.0|
|Heaven & Hell||RZA||5.0|