Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt 2
I was in a quandary before I started writing this review: should I give this album four and a half or five stars? Five is a weighty number. It signifies a classic. As amazing and lyrically rich as Only Built For Cuban Linx 2 is, I don’t believe it’s a classic. Only albums that have forever changed the game can be labeled as such. The original was a classic. Rae and Ghost’s vivid Mafioso street tales set against RZA’s gritty virtuosic production made for a masterpiece. It defined New York hip hop in the mid-nineties and not only influenced artists to come, but those of the same generation as well. People like Nas and Mobb Deep, who had already established themselves as high caliber MCs, began to adopt the dark, extravagant Mafioso crime style into their music. Rae’s subsequent two albums couldn’t possibly live up to what he’d done with his debut.
After two disappointing albums and unsatisfactory label support, Rae finally took his creative destiny into his own hands. He spent three years shopping for the right label and tapping his vast network of industry connections for beats from top-tier producers. They unearthed some of their finest gems in the process, and Rae locked them away until the business side of his latest project was properly taken care of. Now Cuban 2 is finally here and if you’ve had your ear to the Internets, you’d know that the consensus is overwhelming. I’m going to have to whole-heartedly agree: it was well worth the wait.
The album begins where the first one left off. On “Return to the North Star” Popa Wu acts as the Mickey to Rae’s Rocky, dropping knowledge and wisdom on him over the same production that masterfully ended the first album. Then the darts start flying. “House of Flying Daggers” sets the album off with some of the meanest Wu-verses I’ve heard in years. Rae bursts onto the track like a silverback gorilla, tearing through the uncharacteristically menacing J-Dilla production with rhymes like “fly criteria/ bury me in Africa with whips and spears and rough diamonds out of Syria,” While Deck, Ghost, and Meth swing the good ol’ trusty Wu-Tang swords as if their lives depended on it.
It’s somewhat of a disappointment that this is one of the few tracks where Rae coughs up the kind of fire he once had. The album is filled with lush, fascinatingly grimy production that he tends to meander through at a leisurely pace. If anything, this is a sign of his maturation as an artist and as a man. I suppose it doesn’t make much sense for an MC who’s damn near 40 to be barking out rhymes like an angry 20 year old kid. Instead, the Chef has made the conscious (I believe) decision to slow cook his rhymes to perfection. His storytelling ability has always been impressive, but now it’s something to marvel at. He vividly recounts the tale of a drug dealer who is robbed and murdered on “Sonny’s Missing,” a Pete-Rock produced gem that turns an everyday 10 o’clock news story into a surprisingly unsettling slice of life. Rae’s power and skill as a writer is exemplified further on tracks like “Baggin Crack,” where we’re introduced to the various sensations one might experience during a shootout in a crack spot: “Now he start blazin’ the place/ coke all in my skin/ eyes is burning, now I’m wiping my face.”
The track reunites Rae with Erick Sermon’s funky lighter-hearted production that, while being one of the more out-of-place beats on the album, still manages to fit in perfectly. The fact that so many different producers of varying signature styles were able to contribute material and make such a fantastically cohesive record is astounding. Sequencing can make or break an album, and executive producers Rae, RZA, and Busta Rhymes have pieced together a beautifully flowing masterpiece. If Rae was Martin Scorsese and the original Cuban Linx was Mean Streets, than OBFCL2 would be hisDeparted. The writing has become denser and broader in scope, and the production values have soared, but it’s the same raw storytelling ability that makes them both fantastic pieces of work.
As any writer with talent knows, you’ve got to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace, otherwise the audience loses interest. At times, Cuban 2 moves at such a dizzying speed that it’s hard to keep up. With tracks that clock in at as little 54 seconds – as the excellently titled, Marley Marl produced, “Pyrex Vision” does – it’s hard to move on to the next track when you haven’t really grasped the beauty and complexity of the previous one. That being said, we can attribute this to the old show business mantra “always leave them wanting more.”
Even as he teases and tantalizes us at times, with 24 tracks (including the two iTunes bonus joints) Rae has given us plenty of material to feast on. Not one of them is sub par. Not one of them is even par. And if the masterfully prepared gourmet meal that Rae has slaved over for three years wasn’t enough, he’s managed to pull out some surprise courses as well. Although he isn’t listed as a feature on the back cover, on “About Me” Busta Rhymes teams up with the Chef over a sicknin’ old-school banger of a Dr. Dre track. If Detox is ever released, it better be filled with tracks like this one. It’s the only way it will ever be able to live up to the hype, which has now been building and stewing for twice as long as that of OBFCL2. Had Rae waited any longer to release this album he might have been caught up in the same dilemma as Dre. Like some kind of rap Alfred Hitchcock, as soon as the audience starts becoming impatient and frustrated, he hits them with what they’ve been waiting for all along. His timing, precision, and craftsmanship in regards to everything having to do with this project has been impeccable. It’s not a classic. But it’s damn close.