In 1995, Raekwon made his slick ascent to rap's summit by articulating through rhyme a quintessential New York dream: that years of frustration from growing up in high-rise, low-budget, pissy-stairwelled projects could be transformed into cash and celebrity. So effective was his slang-splattered, crime- and drug-addled wordplay that his gem of an album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., not only influenced rap royalty (Jay-Z and Nas), but it also became his audio albatross. Raekwon’s follow-ups (Immobilarity and The Lex Diamond Story) wilted under Linx’s brilliant glow, and every fresh rumor of an “official” sequel was quickly consigned to the same netherworld as Dr. Dre's eons-in-the-waiting Detox.
But now, 14 years later, the Wu-Tang Clan's slang-master general is ready to follow Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II through to fruition.
"I moved to Atlanta four years ago," Raekwon says in his familiar husky timbre while driving home from Virginia. "I came down here from Staten Island, New York, to get peace of mind, to constantly see growth in my life. I lived in New York for so long but I wanted to see more, you know what I mean? Atlanta's a party scene, but for me it's spacious and I wanted to raise my kids in a way to give them the opportunity to come outside and get some fresh air and focus. I grew up in a different time and wasn't fortunate enough to see past the ghetto, but now I can do that for my kids."
Enter the synchronicity. Rae began work on Cuban Linx II just after he traded in his Staten Island ZIP code. If the content of Rae's first installment in the Cuban Linx files came from "a very intense period of [his] life," more comfortable pastures cultivated the creative process this time around. "I'm a product of my environment, and I'm a writer who writes from the heart, so being here in Atlanta has affected my music," he explains. "This album took me about four years to put together — that's not every day of the week getting on top of the album, but just getting in the place I wanted to be at. I'm never going to rush a classic; I'm always going to make albums that feel like a classic cinematic movement — and this one's a landslide classic."
Rae's cocksure attitude might be resolute, but it ain't ’95 anymore. Back then, simply stamping the Wu's logo on your album could take you a long way. But just as the Wu replanted hip-hop's flag in New York after Dr. Dre and Death Row’s West Coast reign in the early ’90s, focus has shifted to Atlanta in the last decade. Atlanta’s emergence as a hip-hop Mecca doesn’t surprise Rae, who still often refers to New York as “home” on his Twitter updates, but don’t expect to see many ATLiens on the Cuban Linx II credits.
"Where I come from, everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, that's how we think," he says. "Wherever you at in the world, if your heart is into something and you really want to do it, it'll come to you. New York, that's the mecca of hip-hop, but we can't think that it's not going to come to other places; everybody's going to get their shine. The South is where it's at right now, they at the top, and I pay respect to everybody."
Cuban Linx II sticks to a classically New York template. The bulk of the production is decidedly East Coast, including RZA, Pete Rock, Marley Marl and Necro. Guest vocals come courtesy Jadakiss, Styles P, Busta Rhymes and assorted members of the Wu. Rae's raps still paint dusky pictures of New York's nefarious nooks, only this time around, he's projecting from secure surroundings. He sounds buoyed by a broad sense of familial responsibility. Asked about an online rumor suggesting the Wu may finally disband and that Rae’s forming a renegade group with Ghostface and Method Man, he sighs and says, "That was definitely put out there before I really had knowledge of it. Those are my brothers and we'll work it out and come up with the best solution. ... But there's also a Wu-Tang project soon coming, and right now Cuban Linx II is a Wu-Tang record that we all want everyone to love and enjoy.
"This record is me flashing back to the days when I was out there like that on the street corners, so I'd definitely say that it's a brother to the first album," he says. "I know people want those pictures of that lifestyle, but it's coming from an older brother perspective now." Then, as if manifesting the original Cuban Linx dream of getting out and getting comfortable but never forgetting how he made it there, he says, "It's about going back but also going forward. I've learned to better myself in the time between and I'm stronger now."
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