Monday, October 12, 2009

Toast the Kings

One of my favorite albums to come out recently is Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II. Like only the best sequels, OB4CLII honors and contextualizes the best moments of its predecessor, but also manages to integrate new and modern components that don't serve the purpose of cheapening or dating any of the material. I seem to be alone in thinking that the Wu-Tang Clan has of late been experiencing a Clint Eastwood-style second renaissance, and that collectively their increased output from Fishscale onward reflects the kind of focused genius of their '93-'97 heyday, where each of the key members of the group got one solo album to show off their best work, and everyone contributed to group releases, which used to feel major (even if, in the case of something like Wu-Tang Forever, some of the music was in fact quite minor). I remember 8 Diagrams getting really good reviews when it came out, and deservedly so, as it was their most remarkable, consistent collection since the first album. And yet everyone forgot about it not long after. I wonder if part of the reason is that Raekwon and Ghostface seemed to not like the production on that album, which admittedly is a far cry, conceptually, from Enter the Wu-Tang.

And yet it seems at least that OB4CLII is getting the accolades it deserves. Raekwon has always been one of the more reticent and perfectionist members of the group, so his contributions to the Wu-Tang discography were less plentiful than his buddy Ghostface Killah. So when he does come out with an album, particularly the official sequel to what everyone agrees is his classic, it feels like an event. The fact that any bad blood between RZA and Raekwon hasn't prevented the former from contributing three tracks of his own probably helps. As is the fact that Raekwon gets strong support from producers as disparate as Dr. Dre and J. Dilla, who remains one of the most remarkably fecund producers years after his death.

I want to provide a track-by-track analysis of this album, because there's really something special and profound going on here, and the more I listen to this album the more I find to admire.

1. "Return of the North Star"--Think of this opening number as a "Previously, on..." moment, or at least an opportunity for Raekwon to bridge the gap between the first OB4CL and this release. It also proves that the game has slightly changed. The beginning is the strings lifted from "North Star (Jewels)," the last track on OB4CL, which then evolves into an even more lush string sample, as if fourteen years of advancements in sampling and recording have yielded a change from black and white to Technicolor. Speaking over this sample is Popa Wu, a non-rapper member of the group responsible for many of the more interminable opening tracks on Wu-Tang albums, but he's only on for an album before we here some words from Raekwon himself. This is merely a prelude, though, and the action has yet to begin...

2. "House of Flying Daggers"--If this counts as an opening salvo, it is certainly as brilliant of an opening as any I have heard, and a perfect example of the kind of intense, fiercely melodic beats J. Dilla seemed to have no trouble coming up with. I would also direct you to this awesome video, which may be an ideal way to listen to this song (and I rarely say that about music videos). There are hints of the old Wu-Tang sound--the martial arts samples and all that--but the sound is clearly Dilla updating RZA. Raekwon is joined here by (in order) Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Method Man. For my money, it's Deck who wins on this particular track (as he and U-God tended to do on much of 8 Diagrams), but everyone is on their best behavior. Method Man's switch-around "Got a whole lot of classic joints/and while you're at it, pass the joint" should go in the annals of Method Man lines where he interrupts his own line of thought to talk about weed. This is what the Wu-Tang Clan always did best: classic, minimalist beat work with three or four classic verses on top of it.

3. "Sonny's Missing"--I've already mentioned several of the high-profile producers on this album without even getting to Pete Rock. Well, here he is. This track is certainly a let-up on the intensity after "House of Flying Daggers," but the track still makes good use of some sinister flute and horn-playing. This also could be considered the start of OB4CLII's story proper, or at least it's the kind of story-oriented track that Raekwon excels at, but I should reveal that as a concept album, this is as about as straight and cohesive a narrative as something like Tommy. Which is to say, apart from using the same Wu-Gambinos mafia aliases from the first album, one doesn't really come away with this album thinking that much has happened. Other than that, U-God is conveniently still dead and therefore won't be showing up to guest (too bad!).

4. "Pyrex Vision"--A very short (0:55), pleasant track, the kind of thing that Ghostface really excels at, going into the minutia of the crack-dealing business, talking about pyrexes under oven flames, putting milk in a finished batch to make it fizzier, etc. Also love the way Raekwon intones "What up, beloved?" The beat is similarly just a brief guitar number, but it's pleasing in its slightness.

5. "Cold Outside"--The album's first properly "epic" track, with Wu hanger-on/occasional singer Suga Suga Bang Bang wailing "it's cold outsiiiiiiiiide" effectively. Raekwon takes the first verse, painting a picture of a decadent, almost dystopian urban environment where drug trade casualties have an almost mythic sense of tragedy. Ghostface is then inclined to go into some of the details, tossing off infanticide, dirty cops, AIDS, the Iraq War, and other modern blights as examples of the kind of feeling that elicits Suga Suga Bang Bang's anxious wail. God, Ghostface sounds intensely in command over that wall of horns. to me, its closest antecedent would be something like "Stick Me For My Riches," another song that made use of extended soul-singing.

6. "Black Mozart"--Yet another reason why RZA will always be known as one of the best: you may not notice it at first, but he's sampling (among other things) the theme from The Godfather. And he does it well. There's some gnarly guitar work (sounds like maybe RZA is playing it?), and Inspectah Deck knows how to just take off with a beat like this. Unfortunately, this track contains RZA's only lyrical contribution, and as protracted as it is, it's still for me one of the maybe ten best moments of this album, when he yells "We soldiers, boy we soldiers!" in that angry sort of yelp he perfected with Gravediggaz. It's one of the beauties of this album that, as good as RZA's contributions are, there's enough good stuff otherwise so that we don't necessarily miss his guiding hand. Also funny: RZA is a terrible, terrible singer.

7. "Gihad"--Another expressly minimal beat: just drums, bass and what sounds like Gregorian chants. Yet another song where Raekwon and Ghostface trade off one verse each, and Ghostface's narrative wins in the memorable department for describing a situation in which he negotiates a Mexican standoff while in the process of receiving fellatio. That, you could say, takes some lyrical talent. Don't know what the significance of the song's title is (the group's five-percenter philosophy is not discussed much elsewhere), but it's still worth several replays for Ghost's verse alone.

8. "New Wu"--RZA's second beat on the album isn't as good as "Black Mozart," but it's capable of growing on you. It depends, really, how well you can handle a hook that is nothing more than a choir singing "Wuuuuu Wuuuuu." The extremely cheap-looking video for this is funny, because it shows the gang in a club when this is most expressly not a club banger. The best moment on this song is Ghostface, and the way he raps the lines "Y'all Planet of the Apes standing next to King Kong," implying that it's not about how many monkeys you have in a movie, but the size of the monkey. This song is all right, but it will never be a favorite, and I can think of several other songs in the album that are probably more deserving of a video (including "Black Mozart"). This is also not Method Man's best moment as a hook-man.

9. "Penitentiary"--Another one of those intense, edgy beats, which befits the subject matter suggested by the song's title. The production is neat and minimal, with some interestingly-integrated sitar samples, but it's mostly about the drum beat and Raekwon and Ghostface. By this point it should be clear that the storyline really is going nowhere, and it's best to look at OB4CLII as a series of Runyonesque theme-linked shorter pieces. "Penitentiary" is a perfect example of the sort of song that contributes nothing to the album but is still capable of lodging itself in one's head.

10. "Baggin' Crack"--Raekwon really loves the occasional shorter guitar-bass-drum number. "Baggin' Crack" is at about the same level as "Gihad" or "Pyrex Vision," which is to say perfectly serviceable. Not much to it other than that. Raekwon has talked about bagging crack elsewhere on this album, so if you're into the inner-workings of crack labs (and if you read this blog, you obviously are), this will be a highlight.

11. "Surgical Gloves"--The subject matter isn't much different here, but this is a different, stranger kind of beat. Wikipedia tells me that it is the Alchemist sampling from a Styx song (!), but there's no way to tell that from the proceedings here. Weird drums, with lots of cymbal crashes, and bells, to give you an idea. By the time you can tell that there is some sort of circular riff pattern underlying this whole thing, the song ends.

12. "Broken Safety"--Jadakiss is probably the first high-profile non-Wu member to guest-verse on the album, and for my money he basically blows away all the non-Wu competition on the remainder of the album (which, to give it away, will include Beanie Siegel and Busta Rhymes). I'm not even sure why, but it must have something to do with that beat, an almost perfectly-pitched mood piece with a loose, repeated sample that allows for a lot of creative rhyming. Raekwon isn't as good as Jadakiss here, but he's better than Styles P, who starts off well but ends up seeming kind of sluggish in comparison to Jadakiss' deft wordplay. This is one of my favorite beats on the album, but I understand it may not be for anyone.

13. "Canal Street"--This track is front-to-back brilliant, one of my personal favorites in terms of just letting Raekwon strut his stuff over some suitably epic hard-rap samples. As great as Raekwon is all over this track, you can only understand how great the accompaniment when he shuts up and the beat continues, during the last twenty seconds or so of the track (my advice: listen from 3:10 onward). Over the past few weeks, I have found myself fast-forwarding to those final twenty seconds and just jamming out. Still, I shouldn't deny how great Raekwon is here, when one can bother to pay attention. The turnaround on the bass drum, the way the hook sort of just continues Raekwon's train of thought--this is classic, personality-oriented rap of the eminently repeatable kind.

14. "Ason Jones"--As if the title didn't clue you in, this is the album's token ODB tribute, and while I don't think it works as well as "Life Changes" (a track no one else seems to like, I'll grant you), I think Raekwon makes up for a rather duff verse on that 8 Diagrams track. The song integrates a few audio clips of ODB talking, which of course can't help but tear at one's heart strings. The beat is more vintage soul, less obtrusive than many of the others because this is meant to be a more reverential and gentle number. And, in case you were still keeping track, the narrative is completely shot at this point.

15. "Have Mercy"--For some reason, this very uncommmercial track has a video. Unfortunately, Beanie Siegel doesn't really step up to the plate the way Jadakiss did, but what he does is serviceable, or at least varies the playing field a little bit. This is a dark little tune. Very hushed, very minimal...and the singer Blue Raspberry adds an even more melancholy voice to the proceedings.

16. "10 Bricks"--Whereas this brilliant, J. Dilla-produced number has no video, even as it fulfills the cinematic MO of OB4CLII as well as any track--in fact, this may the bravest and most characteristically penetrating moment of the whole album. J. Dilla is so good that one can be forgiven for not really listening to what Raekwon, Cappadonna or Ghostface (the unbeatable Ironman team) have to say. I predict that the beat from "10 Bricks" will go on to be a remix classic. It's such an organic and casual update of the RZA sound, and yet it really has its own personality.

17. "The Fat Lady Sings"--RZA's third and final track on the album is even weaker than the first two, which may have less to do with the beat than with the fact that Raekwon doesn't seem to be very engaged with it, and doesn't let it go past 2:17. Raekwon experiments with some surreal subject matter, but this is definitely meant to be a RZA mood piece (think "Sunlight") so it doesn't really fit on a Raekwon album.

18. "Catalina"--If you can't tell from the first 20 seconds who the producer is here, I suggest you give 2001 another listen. If you're wondering what sort of west-east synergy could be produced by the meeting of Dre and Raekwon, you may be disappointed to find that the combination doesn't really yield anything resembling tension. Not that we don't know that Dre is capable of better--I would be willing to be a lot of money that this is one of the many cast-off tracks from Detox that Dre has been agonizing over for so many years. Still, the problem with 2001 was always that the rapping was always threatened by the amazing production, but when you got a guy like Raekwon, you don't have to work so hard on the production end. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that Raekwon is borrowing a bit of Inspectah Deck's verse from "C.R.E.A.M."

19. "We Will Rob You"--To be honest, Slick Rick's whole part here, and his attempt at interpolating Queen, is pretty lame. The rest is excellent. Part of the reason is that it contains the only verse from GZA on the album, who is of course always welcome. It seems that GZA has always had a hard time integrating himself on Raekwon's street-level releases--he only had one verse on the first OB4CL as well. He's great, and really works the subject matter as well. But is GZA the first guy you go to when you're doing a song about carjacking? Masta Killa, who is also sorely unappreciated, does some of his best work here as well.

20. "About Me"--The other Dr. Dre track on this album also bears the stamp of its maker (particularly that keyboard line--that's textbook 2001). Busta Rhymes also shows up, and while I didn't think much of his verse at first (it's always kind of hard to figure what he's saying), I am more capable of appreciating his lyricism after a few close listens. Dr. Dre also adds a few samples of him repeating "yeah" a lot, which is kind of silly and suggests that Dre wasn't exactly tailoring this to Raekwon. I could be wrong.

21. "Mean Streets"-- Suga Suga Bang Bang returns, with a song that is structured similarly to "Cold Outside." Which means it's alright with me. Raekwon remains characteristically smooth despite the torrential backdrop, and name checks Miller's Crossing; Inspectah Deck quotes The Godfather, Part III and works a sustained, belligerent pitch; Ghostface sounds genuinely harried and disturbed, almost as if possessed, and ends up murdering the remaining minute of the track. You know that the album has to be winding down at this point, if only because this sort of ridiculous energy needs to have some sort of release.

22. "Kiss the Ring"--In which Scram Jones distills the best twelve seconds of music Elton John ever wrote (0:40-0:52), cranks the octave level up to a fever pitch, and turns the final track into a requiem for the kind of conceptually-grounded album that OB4CL was supposed to represent--the kind that should have been a lot more influential than it ended up being. With that in mind, Raekwon chooses two apt partners to set the tone for the end of an era--Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa. Both turn in performances that are career highs. In particular, I think that it was brave of Raekwon to allow Masta Killa, who has fought for so many years to not be a marginal member of the Wu-Tang Clan, to basically sum up the themes and goals of both OB4CL and its sequel. And I think he does a beautiful job. The way he starts his verse as the drums temporarily cut out, and then they come back in--it might be the best single moment on the album, an absolute spine-tingler. I can't contain my admiration for a song such as this. "So salute, and toast to the best who done it," indeed. It's hard to not have the last 30 seconds get to you.

Bonus Tracks

23. Walk Wit Me--The iTunes release has a couple bonus tracks on it, which kind of ruins the effect of "Kiss the Ring," but whatever. "Walk Wit Me," whose video can be seen here, would probably have worked well somewhere in the middle of the album. Really, it's a strange omission. I love the breakdown where you just hear the singing, and I have to say that the video works pretty well within the context of the song. It's the kind of song one imagines would be good for a boat ride.

24. Badlands--Not a Terrence Malick tribute, but rather another Raekwon/Ghostface trade-off, the simplest trick in the book. A bit noisier than the average track, with some eerie feedback guitar sounds in the middle. Perfectly serviceable.

I'd say that overall, I give the album five stars, an A+, however you want to rate it. I really, really like this album. In fact, it may even be better than its predecessor, which I thought would be impossible. It's kind of like The Godfather, Part II, in that it might be better than the original, but what kind of asshole likes splitting those sorts of hairs?


  1. Oddly enough, you and I identified a the same similarities b/w OB4CL2 and 8 Diagrams--i.e. that "Fat Lady Sings" is a OB4CL2's "Sunlight" and that "Cold Outside" is the bleak equal of OB4CL2's "Stick Me For My Riches". I'd argue that those last two songs are the best on their respective albums.

    A couple stray observations:
    Being young never suited Raekwon, and I think the OG angle makes a lot of his raps more interesting. Still, I wish he'd stray a little further from conventional gangsta narratives. Maybe Rae heard some of "Wizard Of Poetry" and decided that taking chances was a bad idea. Come to think of it, being an OG seems like it suits Ghost too. I love that part where insists upon calling a 25 year-old "son."

    Slick Rick's dumb intro to "We Will Rob You" sucks, which is especially disappointing after his incredible verse on Mos Def's "Auditorium," from earlier this summer. Dilla, incidentally, is one a freakish posthumous roll, having contributed some really good beats to that album as well.

    I found the ODB samples in "Ason Jones" poorly chosen, as they don't paint him in the most intelligent light (esp. the one about welfare).

    "Canal Street" and "Pyrex Vision" are both incredible, very nearly my favorites. The latter points in a different, slightly stranger direction that the album could have taken.

    If OB4CL2, which is substantially better than its predecessor, does nothing else, it should make everyone really psyched for that forthcoming Meth/Rae/Ghost album.

  2. This is good news for AV.


  3. I've put off listening to Wizard Of Poetry in part because it might put a wrench in my Wu-Tang "second renaissance" thesis.

    I agree about Mos Def, but what's the status of this new album now that Method Man is in jail for tax evasion?