Saturday, 22 February 2003

Album Review: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx

Every hip hop fan knows the Wu Tang Story, but for the uninformed, here is a brief summary. Circa 1995, 5 MCs release solo albums and they are all fantastic. They wait a few years and they release another group LP, it's a touch self-indulgent and the fans begin to revolt. Then they each release another and they're mostly pretty bad. That's the story so far. Now rewind to 1995, Raekwon (along with substantial help from Ghostface Killah) releases what is critically considered by many Wu Tang fans to be the best album of the lot, and one of the best hip hop albums ever released.

Cuban Linx wasn't particularly sought after upon release. Compared to Ghostface's staccato, Method Man's stoned bassy voice and ODB's crazy shouting, Raekwon seemed to get a little lost in the mix during 36 Chambers. He's certainly the Wu member who performs the least guest spots. A combination of this led to this LP receiving a slightly muted reception when it was initially released. It didn't take long for the hip hop community to realise what a classic LP this is.

With their first solo releases, each of the Wu members adopted different personas, which was part of their appeal. While Gza's gimmick was the interspersed Shogun Assassin samples, ODB's behaved and sounded like he had just escaped the lunatic asylum and Ghostface's inimitable staccato made him sound totally original, Raekwon's persona is that of the urban gangster.

The gangster rap / Mafioso imagery was nothing new in 1995, Kool G Rap (amongst others) had popularised the idea a few years earlier, but it had not reached the saturation point that it currently has. However, there had not been an LP that had so successfully blended such imagery with the music. It is the track Criminology that gives us the first taster. It begins with a sample from the Al Pacino movie Scarface and is a typically brash expose of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah's (who features heavily on many of the tracks) gangster credentials, "Call me dough snatcher / just the brother for the rapture / I hang glide, holding on strong / hard to capture" Raekwon spits. Elsewhere, the Wu anthem, Wu Gambinos has each Wu member (and guest rapper Nas) adopt a gambino persona as a (perhaps typical) story of crime is told. It's one of the most successful posse tracks to find its way onto a solo Wu release. Method Man's opening statement sums the sentiment up perfectly, "Wu come to get you / now they've got guns / I be the first to set off shit, last to run / Wu roll together as one / I call my brothers Sun cos they shine like one."

Rza's production is typically innovative. On Ice Water an odd chant is coupled with some slow scratching to great effect. Meanwhile, the Gladys Knight and The Pips sampling Can It All Be So Simple glistens with emotion and North Star takes Barry White's soul classic Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Baby and turns it into something altogether darker.

Today every new Wu LP is heavily anticipated, but for the wrong reasons - old fans tune in to hear if the group have come anywhere near to close to their old quality. Back in 1995, it seemed like the cycle of quality could never end. Cuban Linx is one of the best cuts the Wu will ever produce, and if Immobilarity is anything to go by, it seems certain to be the best LP carrying the Raekwon name for a long, long time.

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