Rewind: Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
[When so much of your job is dealing with new music, it’s a real pleasure to write about something old that has withstood the test of time, and reflect on its relevance in a contemporary context. I’ve made Rewind a weekly feature. Of the pieces I’ve written myself, this is one of my favorites.]
With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here, we look back at Raekwon’s classic solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, which turned 20 over the weekend.
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What is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…?
Released August 1, 1995, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is the solo debut from Wu-Tang Clan stalwart Raekwon.
In typical Wu-Tang conceptualism, the album was composed to play like a film: with “Chef” Raekwon as the star, Ghostface Killah (under his frequent “Tony Starks” alias) as the guest-star, and producer RZA credited as director. It features appearances from every member of the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as close affiliates Cappadonna and Blue Raspberry. The track “Verbal Intercourse” features a popular guest spot from Nas, marking the first time a rapper not associated with Wu-Tang appears on a record from the group.
The album’s original full title, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Niggaz, was intended to serve as a warning that this album was intended for the lighthearted. (Cuban link is a thick and heavy style of gold chain that is extremely difficult to break.) The album is also known as The Purple Tape because the original cassette was completely purple – a nod to how drug dealers would uniquely mark their product. As Raekwon would later explain to XXL, “I wanted to portray an image that if I was selling crack or dimes in the street, you would recognize these dimes from other niggas’ dimes.”
What does it sound like?
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… was recored entirely in the basement of RZA’s Staten Island home, where many other early Wu-Tang efforts were made. RZA alone handled the album’s entire recording, production and engineering. As is characteristic to Wu-Tang records of the time there are many samples from kung fu and mafia films. The sonics are gritty and nocturnal, but noticeably more polished and layered with the addition of strings and piano loops, as well as occasional flourishes of female vocals.
Released shortly after Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, which Raekwon and Ghostface also appear on, the album is another hard and jagged cornerstone of the hardcore East Coast renaissance asserting itself at the time. Cuban Linx is also regarded as the quintessential album in the sub-genre of Mafioso rap, with thematic references to mobsters, the drug trade and luxurious lifestyles, and a loose narrative about rising through the urban criminal ranks.
Why should I care?
Alongside GZA’s Liquid Swords, Cuban Linx is as the best of the Wu-Tang solo albums. Despite initially selling fewer copies than previous Wu-Tang solo efforts, it earned even greater critical acclaim, which has only intensified over the years. A true masterpiece of the hip-hop canon, it frequently places high on short lists of the greatest rap albums of all time. It was highly influential in the decade after its release, with heavy references on the likes JAY Z’sReasonable Doubt (1996) and Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (1997).
Esteemed rock critic Robert Christgau eloquently wrote of the album:
“A lushly impenetrable jungle of sonic allusions transforms the nightmare of the crack era into a dream of cream skimmed and warmed for the bathtub—a dream with its own internal logic, moral weight, and commitment to beauty. It’s an illusion, as any project denizen caught in the crossfire knows. But materially and metaphorically, Wu-Tang’s power to create this illusion provides a way out of the hell underneath—especially, but not exclusively, for them. ”
Where do I hear more?
In late 2005, Raekwon announced he was recording a sequel to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… For various reasons the album was delayed for several years, flaming existing skepticism that a second Cuban Linx could ever measure up to its predecessor. Yet against all doubts, when Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II came out in September 2009, it was met with universal acclaim.
Reuniting the central trio of Raekwon, Ghostface and RZA, and featuring members of Wu-Tang, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss and Beanie Sigel, Pt. II thematically picks up where the original left off. With further production from the likes of Dr. Dre, J Dilla, The Alchemist and more, the sequel shines arguably brighter than Cuban Linx Pt. I, at least in sonic terms.
Beyond Raekwon’s own solo material, the world of Wu is vast and rich. All new entrants should start with group’s 1993 debut, Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version and GZA’s Liquid Swords. Other classics include Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever and The W, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, Fishscale and Twelve Reasons to Die, Method Man’s Tical, Method Man and Redman’s Blackout!, Masta Killa’s No Said Date, and Inspectah Deck’s Uncontrolled Substance.