If there’s one hip-hop group – and symbol – that’s likely to be immortalized in music culture forever, it’s the Wu-Tang Clan, and their unmistakable “W.” With one of the most iconic albums in rap history, the 1993 release, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was by itself, enough to cement them in the conversation for the best the genre had ever seen. While several of their following albums are solid, the early and mid ‘90s are where the Wu-Tang Clan flourished the most. To this day, it’s hard to think of another performance that replicates the mob-like mentality and rapport of the group’s members, with only classics like Straight Outta Compton (1988) and The Low End Theory (1991) being able to challenge it. But looking past that one release alone, Wu-Tang members continued to make their name through independent creations, like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995).
Coming two years after the aforementioned 36 Chambers, Raekwon was the third member to put out a solo record, following in the footsteps of both Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. And though the first two are phenomenal records in their own right, neither seem to have achieved the long-lasting impact of Raekwon’s break-out project. In fact, in many ways, the record executes better than even their group’s magnum opus; at the very least, in its ambition.
Coming into the project, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and RZA had a vision of making a pseudo-film; with Raekwon being the star, Killah, the “guest-star,” and RZA, the director. Of course, this is made very clear inside the cover art alone; with Raekwon in the center, and a very energetic Ghostface Killah hyping him up. Despite very large aspirations, it follows-up on them very well. Holding onto an eighteen-song tracklist, and a seventy-three-minute runtime, it lasts about as long as a film does; much longer than the original 36 Chambers. And through crafty intros and outros of every track, it flows seamlessly throughout its entire length. Similarly, it’s arguably more focused than 36 Chambers. The teamwork being placed largely through a duo brings out both of their characters much more than they were able to, within the confines of a ten-person group. It’s almost unfair to categorize this as a solo release, as Killah was credited for eleven of the eighteen songs, and featured on even more.
With the first track on the record, “Striving for Perfection,” they make their goals clear from the start. They want to break down the borders, remove any complacency they may have, and strive for much more. Later verses on the record expand this idea past pure material success, and bring it to mean improving their personalities and confidence as well. It’s hard to believe it was possible to build on the established swagger of 36 Chambers, but they found a way. Lines like “Lay on the crime scene, sipping fine wines, pulling nines on UFOs, taking they fly clothes, they eyes closed,” make up a large portion of the content on this record.
Elevating itself over other, lesser albums is how they utilize these boastful lyrics. The principal bragging of gangsta-rap isn’t placed in, blind and meaningless, but instead, often in the context of the necessary, and even-sad life of crime-ridden neighborhoods. Both “Knuckleheadz” and “Criminology” detail drug deals and other criminal activity, putting the tales of real people to the forefront. Going one level deeper, Raekwon and Killah do their best to reflect on these experiences and force the audience to ask questions about the reality of their childhood. “Rainy Dayz” is as much of a story as it is a song, showing how harsh a crime-infused life can be on their individual relationships. “Can It All Be So Simple (Remix)” asks the very question posed in the title, attempting to shed light on the lack of binary reality everyone finds themself in. Everyone is a product of their environment, and thus, not every criminal is a bad person. Finally, “Heaven & Hell” brings these frequent concepts to real life, claiming sometimes you need to go through hell to get to heaven.
Breaking more new ground are a few other featured tracks. “Verbal Intercourse” is one of the first Wu-Tang tracks to let in an outsider, Nas. “Ice Cream” brings the group to a more romantic, female-focused side, with Method Man’s hook. And another member makes his debut, with Cappadonna’s presence on “Ice Water,” letting him in on the action. The album marked a new ability for the very static group to allow new stars to flaunt their skills.
But of course, it wouldn’t be a Wu-Tang Clan record without the group’s strong rapport, and more freestyle, fun-loving tracks. “Guillotine (Swordz)” is perhaps the most “classic” Wu-Tang cut on the record, bringing in GZA and Deck, and adding the traditional Asian and cinematic themes that made them famous on 36 Chambers.“Incarcerated Scarfaces” is especially filled with the tough attitude of Raekwon, as it was written in about fifteen minutes, alongside RZA. And “Wu-Gambinos” rounds out the strong trio of classic Wu-like songs on the record, with Method Man and RZA running a bit of the show once again.
Twenty-five years after its release, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… maintains as a unique journey through hardcore hip-hop, with the strong duo of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. It builds on the strengths developed in their initial work with Wu-Tang Clan, bringing a loud, unapologetic, and charismatic flavor. Their staple sample-heavy production is present, as are their heavy gang-related themes. But the personality walking alongside their already-proven skills, and movie-like flow, make it one of the more enjoyable of the pretty strong catalogue of solo Wu-Tang releases. Though it’s hard to call it a concept album, without a truly linear or clear narrative, the focus makes it much more of an overall experience than a typical, one-dimensional, listening endeavor. It’s clear that one of their intentions was to bring the typical gangsta-rap approach to a more meaningful place. This is one of many ways it’s elevated over its peers, and still relevant today.