Review Summary: "Tell a friend/It's that symbol again/That W/Coming through"...
September has been a curiously auspicious month for hip hop. First, Jay-Z drops Blueprint 3 and now enters Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt II, the long-awaited sequel to his classic solo debut.
Artists generally avoid sequel albums. Revisiting old ideas is usually just plain boring, both for them and the listener. Making a sequel to a classic album like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is an especially daunting endeavor because of the 15 years of hype separating it from a fellow-up effort. It’s why Metallica nearly shat in their Armani suits when Rick Rubin told them to make Death Magnetic the sequel to Master of Puppets (it didn’t come close by the way). If they just can’t resist temptation, most artists play it safe and pull a Robert Smith -- just lump a bunch of alike-sounding albums together and call them a “trilogy”. Raekwon is a different cut from those guys. He’s a Wu after all, and a Wu’s word is bond. If the Chef says he’s going to cook up a sequel, then it’s going to be feast for the ears.
Linx II picks up right where the first Linx left off. Linx II’s opener, “The Return of the North Star” retains the same cinematic atmosphere of Linx I’s closer, “North Star (Jewels)”, with a moody treatment of slow horns, tense percussion and some words of wisdom from Papa Wu before melting into a buttery soul-groove sample. The intro sets the album’s tone and tells you everything you need to know since Linx I: Raekwon is back on his old hustle, the streets are restless and some serious **** is about to go down.
Some things never change.
What IS different is the brutal “House of Flying Daggers” featuring an artery-bursting joint from the late, great J-Dilla. Some of the best rapping to come out of the Wu dojo in years is on this one, with heavyweight wordplay from Inspectah Deck (“I pop off like a mobster boss/Angel hair with the lobster sauce/ Summertime can’t top the scorch”), Raekwon (“Fly criteria/Bury me in Africa/With whips and spears and rough diamonds out of Syria”), Ghostface Killah (Usually we bust down niggas with bats and swell they joints/Elbow, wrists, they shins get cracked) and Method Man (“Past the joint/ Let’s push this music past the point/Of no return/Til they crash and burn down the ashes/They placed inside Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Urn”). The Clan hasn’t sounded this resolute in years, and it’s only the album’s SECOND TRACK.
Raekwon keeps the fire hot on “Sonny’s Missing” and “Pyrex Vision” with some help from the ace samplers Pete Rock and Marley Marl respectively. The former is driven by a cheesy kung-fu hook with a muddled piano and deep bass line interjected with sound-effects that tell a vivid story. The latter is driven by a nostalgic guitar hook and subtle percussion and chimes with the smattered sounds of a drug lab. Both are short, sweet bridges for “Cold Outside”, a track that bawls with weeping mariachi horns and a tortured blues chorus. This is the point where I expected the album to fall off for a few tracks (as most albums do after the five-track mark), but there really isn’t a non-single track on Linx II that doesn’t hold up. The spooky organ loop in the album’s first RZA offering, “Black Mozart”, plays masterfully off a subtle background guitar lick. The titular element on his later contribution, “Fat Lady Sings”, is equally charming. BT may be the most undersung beat-layer on this project. Besides the atmospheric intro, he also puts down a tight, by-the-book effort with on the jittery “Penitentiary”. Necro delivers on the beat for “Gihad”, a muted chorus of ominous ‘la-la’s’ which works disturbingly well with Ghostface's rhymes about blowjob follies. The other album single “New Wu” exceeds all expectations of dopeness with a laid-back, silky-smooth vocal loop by RZA. Method Man’s cold-blooded flow (“I’m pinching/My pop’s lift it/ Need business/I’m not finished/ I’m *sniff* too hot with it/You bitchin’/ The plot thicken”) is almost too much for it. “Baggin Crack” is a solid Raekwon solo tip that serves to retain the album’s concept, and has a classic blaxploitation-esque feel courtesy of Erick Sermon. The Alchemist transmutes an unassuming bass line into a certified banger with the album’s hidden-gem, “Surgical Gloves”, another Raekwon solo spot that reminds you who this album belongs to. “Broken Safety” feels underwritten, but it’s probably because it has to make room for “Canal Street” with an instrumental that could be stand-in trailer music for -insert random 1930’s gangster flick here-.
“Ason Jones” is a touching departure from the album’s overbearing mafioso theme. Here, Raekwon honors the deceased Wu legend, Ol’ Dirty Bastard with a sentimental beat by another dead man, J-Dilla. The irony here is both arresting and ingenious, two dead masters being recognized for their impact on the game in one stroke. The moody “Have Mercy” is an appropriate follow-up that puts things back on track with Raekwon rapping about being locked in isolation over soulful loop of R&B vocals and pensive piano keys. J-Dilla strikes from beyond the grave again with a murderous Asiatic string-plucking driven beat on “10 Bricks”, another track where Ghostface is practically foaming at the mouth by the end. Dr. Dre’s contributions range from lukewarm to A-level, but are a far-cry from his earlier G-Funk stylings on The Chronic and Doggystyle. “Catalina” begins with an interesting wood-chime that quickly becomes another passable Carribean-flavored luxury romp. Raekwon comes much harder on “About Me” with support from Busta Rhymes. The vocal track underneath the piano and handclaps explodes with tactical precision here, an interesting preview for Dre’s anticipated Detox album. “Mean Streets” is a snarling, late-album attempt by Allah Mathematics to make a hustler’s anthem, but the weak hook and leftover rhymes drag it down into forgettable territory. “Kiss the Ring” is a regal, chipmunk-vocal wrap-up with Scram Jones on point.
Raekwon did the impossible here. He made a worthy successor to a classic LP, a lesson that reclusive perfectionists like Kevin Shields could stand to learn from. Standing at a monstrous 22 tracks, Linx II is The Chef cooking with nothing but pure fire. If you needed any reassurance that the Wu is still force to be reckoned with, this is it. ODB would be proud.