For the past few years, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II has been hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy, a much-buzzed-about follow-up postponed for so long that fans wondered whether it would ever see daylight. Raekwon signed to Aftermath, a label notorious for releasing more artists from their contracts than albums, and he surprised no one by leaving the label with a few Dr. Dre tracks as a souvenir of his time there. The Aftermath incarnation of Part II was supposed to be a Dre/RZA co-production, but the released version is heavy on Wu-Tang and light on Dre, to its benefit.
True to its title, Part II returns to the blueprint that fueled the unimpeachable first wave of Wu-Tang solo albums, with dusty soul loops saturated in ’70s cinematic atmosphere, samples from obscure kung-fu movies, and the high-voltage chemistry of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, who steals every track he’s on. In the cosmology of Martin Scorsese crime movies, Raekwon is Robert De Niro to Ghostface’s Joe Pesci, a cold-blooded, calm mastermind to his partner’s perpetually apoplectic wild card. The messy, sprawling opus of Part II offers an embarrassment of riches as Raekwon joins his Wu brethren in vivid crime-world narratives rich in pulpy detail. Even the self-indulgent skits add to the retro Wu-Tang vibe: Part II is gloriously excessive, too much of a very good thing. Raekwon pays reverent homage to the oft-overlooked dignified side of fallen comrade Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Ason Jones.” Gorgeous production by another dead hip-hop icon, J-Dilla, lends the song additional pathos. Raekwon pays further homage to his late friend’s memory by releasing a tour de force that honors both the legacies of Wu-Tang Clan and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.