Raekwon / Jay-Z

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 / The Blueprint 3

(EMO / Atlantic; 2009)

By Clayton Purdom | 25 September 2009

Can we all agree that no album deserves a sequel? Given that all album-length conceptual narratives are fucking idiotic (”The Wall,” or whatever), and so a sequel would be doubly idiotic, and, further, that therefore naming an album as a sequel that doesn’t already boast an album-length conceptual narrative is an act of laziness in addition to idiocy, it seems fair to surmise that no album should just be the name of another album + a number. It’s cheap; feels too learned from Hollywood. Here’s something you like. Here’s something you like again. Here’s something you like with a vengeance.

This month the authors of two of hip-hop’s most storied Album-albums try their hand at sequels, and each comes accompanied by a different sort of fever: Raekwon’s motivation is that of a brooding artist, fraught with ambition and doubt; Jay-Z will proudly point to a jumbo jet as his. One of pop’s last reliable unit-pushers, Hova feels the watchful eyes of the music industry on him. That old boast proved prescient: Jay used to sound like a businessman with a wicked sense of humor killing some scotches with you afterhours, but now feels too sucked into the corporate machine to have that highball. He sounds like a business, man. He is a confluence of economic factors moving in a resolutely similar progression. Like cloud computing. Still, if no longer exactly human, Jay-Z remains a gregarious, um, confluence of economic factors with which to spend sixty minutes. It is correct to be thrilled by the hard-knock populism of “D.O.A.” or “On to the Next One,” and in “Empire State of Mind,” Al Shux and Alicia Keys somehow tease from the emcee an unexpectedly canonical effort, a sly inversion of Nas’ classic “NY State of Mind” pushed from street anthem to, like, national anthem—yet still pinpointed in its details at the Big Apple. The shift from the kicky bounce of Hova’s verses to the soaring cityscape grandeur of Keys’ choruses is a feat of almost architectural permanence and scale.

But one misses the “man” behind all this business. Most damningly, hip-hop’s “people” person comes across as smug on The Blueprint 3. The pointless hat-tips of “A Star is Born” feel blithe, spoiling the beat. Too frequently, the 40-year-old who told us “30 is the new 20” sounds like an angry old man, lethargic and curmudgeonly. He drops few hooks and his placeholders thereof were chosen with a frightful haphazardness. He occasionally raps—or, in his fashion, gladhands—his brain out, but even on the purposeful swagger of “Thank You” his charisma feels calculated. And on “Venus vs. Mars,” containing the first good rap beat Timbaland’s done since “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” Hov straight-up wastes the instrumental with such blunt non-insight into gender differences he makes Dr. Phil look like a real-life doctor. Indeed, if this follows the legacy of any Jay-Z record, it would be The Black Album’s (2003) unabashed (and largely successful) bid as a front-to-back singles collection, universally memorized. Better, then, that this Blueprint 3 call itself The Silver Album and, shorn of the shackle of its better, bang with a less heavy conscience.

Raekwon’s nervousness is similarly self-imposed. Its recording carries a storied artistic intensity, having gone through various permutations and release dates over the course of this decade. What we eventually have, though, contains pieces of all those things—aborted sessions with Dr. Dre, repurposed 8 Diagrams (2007) material, probably some lost good Ghostface record, and so on. This could leave the record fussed-over and disjunctive, but it honors its original with a shuffling, phantasmagoric overarching structure, frequently dissolving into miasmic swirls of beats and skits and death before abruptly tensing, noose-like, into a focused banger. Witness, for example, the momentary hush in Dilla’s stomping “House of Flying Daggers” into which Raekwon first inserts himself, this moment his dashing grand entrance to the record after the traditional introductory Inspectah Deck verse. And it is apparent from that gasp in the beat and Raekwon’s ensuing, eyeball-bursting verse exactly what is going on here, what we have on our hands: Cuban Linx 2 is the best sustained individual rap performance since Tha Carter 3 (2008) or Invincible’s Shapeshifters (2008), and that it is a fundamental doubling of what he accomplished with the first Cuban Linx (1995) is a testament to the robustness of that first aesthetic achievement.

But it’s a big record to carry, and while he could on his own, he has help: sharp, likeable turns from Method Man, classic Beanie Sigel maundering, sturdy work from Cappadonna and the GZA, and the return of Ghostface’s black-metal dark Wu-Tang Forever (1997) lyricism. Hova’s guest spots instead feel as contrived and 09/09-specific as that balcony spot at the Grizzly Bear show. (And do we blame Kanye or Solange for that one?) Cuban Linx 2 sounds grown organically from its source, whereas Blueprint 3 sounds like a refutation of its. Raekwon has been honest about his artistic legacy—to his infinite credit, he seems completely aware of it, respects it as much as we rap fans do. Raekwon’s stories sound hewn from the exact universe of the original record, some smutty, shadow version of early 90s NYC full of Raymond Chandler wiseguys and bloodthirsty handgun samurais. Hov can grow, Hov can change, but Rae proves irrefutably the virtues of not doing so. He successfully taps into the ideas and passion and atmosphere of where he was when he made the first Cuban Linx while at the same time the context and palette and everything else, inevitably, has changed. So, no, Raekwon has not made a valid sequel to that classic—but he has quite validly added a couple hundred new bars to that performance.

See, for example, the pointillist sketchwork of “Fat Lady Sings,” the simmering sermonizing of “Canal Street,” or “Ason Jones,” which swoons with the sort of acceptance that only comes years after the hurt. He is at the root of his art, the same root it was fifteen years ago, kicking eight million stories and jumping from a charitable afterthought to a catalytic firebrand in that impossible, frustrating, ongoing debate that is rap’s real heart, from OKP boards and blunted basements to the Summer Jam Screen, of Who’s Best.

These are flawed records that pulse with the genius of their creators in a middling year in a strange era of rap. Things are clearly in flux, and those numbers after the title feel like anchors, a way for the emcees to make sense of their artistic output. But they end up meaning very different things in these two instances. One has dehumanized what was once a subtle nod toward its creator’s soul; The Blueprint that was sketched out as a vaunted resuscitation of sample-based boom-bap rap production is replaced here by big corny synth wipes, a sometimes-fascinating corollary to Jay’s corporate sense of purpose. But, even when winning, what Jay-Z is making no longer feels in any form like the breathing, mutable thing that is hip-hop. And Raekwon sounds drenched in its blood.