Cuban Linx, the auspicious solo debut from the Wu-Tang Clan’s resident chef, turns 25
All sorts of great lines are delivered on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… but the most resonant doesn’t come from Raekwon the Chef, Ghostface Killah, any of his other Wu-Tang Clan affiliates, or even Nas. Instead, it’s sampled dialogue from John Woo’s classic actioner The Killer: “He looks determined without being ruthless.”
This leads off the endlessly explosive “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” where Raekwon comes across as determined and ruthless. Lines blasting out with accuracy and precision. Raekwon compares Moët champagne to vomit and addresses anti-Blackness among cab drivers. The sample makes more sense in hindsight. Raekwon’s determination might look like ruthlessness, but creating a world like the one on Cuban Linx requires a skilled hand, one that holds attention but doesn’t flash too much all at once. Raekwon needs to be believable as both the mafioso kingpin of his raps and as the curator of an epic hip-hop album. He’s a man in total control.
VIDEO: John Woo’s The Killer (1989)
He’s not in this alone, of course. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is the fourth Wu-Tang-associated album and the one with the most outside involvement since 36 Chambers. This isn’t a matter of other members wresting control away from Raekwon and his contributions becoming an afterthought. It’s visionary and collaborative power at work, with individual auteurs coming together for one amazing score.
Frequently described as “cinematic,” Only Built 4 Cuban Linx doesn’t have a completely linear plot, or necessarily plot at all. But it still feels like watching great cinema, or scenes from great mafia films. Even without complete context regarding supporting and peripheral characters and their backgrounds, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah make them feel as real as the scenes they paint them into. “Knowledge God” has verses where Raekwon knocks off a pair of addicts as well as a rival dealer. Details like a piranha-infested fish tank being riddled with bullets linger. Like any great storyteller, Raekwon knows its the little moments that add up to the big picture. Screenwriters have been signed up Hollywood development deals for less.
Without Ghostface Killah, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… could still happen, but it wouldn’t feel as complete. The pair’s chemistry is exactly what any good rap duo needs. They sound like they’re working to bring out the best in each other while also being the star of each moment they’re in the spotlight. They also know how to use their distinct approaches to tell different sides of a story. On “Can It Be All So Simple (Remix),” both Raekwon and Ghostface recount stories of bloodshed. But while Raekwon sounds like he’s on his throne, musing about the tough times he’s experienced to get to get to the top, Ghostface is speaking as his teenage self, recently shot, and trying to make it through the night and beyond. Other moments, like Ghostface’s verses on “Rainy Dayz” and “Glaciers of Ice,” have more drama than others can pull off in a full album or in a furrowed-brow monologue.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… has the twin pleasures of evolving what the Wu-Tang Clan was capable was also asserting their previous forms of dominance. As with any of their classic albums, RZA’s production was a vital ingredient, one that led the way for those on the mic. Speaking with Variety recently, Raekwon said, “I always rhymed according to the sound and what I felt the beat was telling me to say.” Listen to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… while only focusing on the beats, and it tells as vivid of a tale. At one moment, RZA is layering on gunshots and tire screeches. In another, strings are soaring. The Wu-Tang leader was fashioned as a “director” for this album, and his production is like audio cinematography.
When other Wu-Tang cohorts show up, it takes things in a new direction without being distracting. U-God and his internal rhymes dance all about the piano loops of “Knuckleheadz.” Inspectah Deck and GZA bookend “Guillotine (Swordz),” which could have just as easily fit in on 36 Chambers or the RZA-produced Deck album that floodwaters tragically prevented.
The back half of the album feels more relaxed than the front, but mainly because fewer clips are being unloaded. “Wu-Gambinos” functions like a Staten Island relay race, with the baton being the microphone, passed between Method Man, Raekwon, RZA and Ghostface Killah, with all eyes on leaving everyone else in their dust.
VIDEO: Raekwon “Ice Cream”
Despite having come out of the gate with so much confidence, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was arguably the most impressive project the Wu-Tang Clan had put out up to that point. Not only were they offering up gritty mafioso tales, but they were also putting in sex jams like “Wisdom Body” and “Ice Cream” almost seemingly purely as flexes, to show the strength of the Wu-Tang sound was more about than the right samples, taunting lyrics, or even rapping. It was about just how much they dared to pull off. There’s even a moment here, on “Ice Water,” where Ghostface manages to make rhyming “million” with “billion” sound innovative.
On the skit “Shark N*ggas (Biters),” Raekwon and Ghostface Killah discuss the scourge of copycats in hip-hop. It’s like they know what’s going to happen in the wake of this album’s release. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is a supersized work of art that taught Raekwon’s contemporaries and legions of aspiring rappers about how much of a universe could be created with verses and beats. It’s both a culmination of hip-hop’s greatest qualities, as well as a new beginning for the genre, and crime sagas as a whole.