Problem: it’s too long (though that’s less of an issue here than it is on the exceptionally okay sequel fourteen years later), and this was the major hindrance of me accepting Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… like everyone else. Look, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah (who shares almost half the mic time here) are some of the best and most unique rappers out there in their immaculate attention to detail, with Raekwon bringing you to the Ghetto and Ghostface’s absurdity bringing you out. But regardless, both rappers unable to hold your attention for albums longer than 60 minutes (though oddly enough, the best albums of either rapper are their longest ones…) And it doesn’t help that RZA, keeping with Raekwon’s vision, is forced to make beats out of the same toolbox over and over.
After writing, I’ll be deleting “Striving for Perfection” and “Shark Niggas (Biters)” immediately (question: has there ever been a skit on a Wu-Tang release that’s added anything?). And I personally skip the following songs for the following reasons: “Knuckleheadz” and “Knowledge God” (neither of which are bad, but let’s be honest: “Criminology” is where things really take off; that being said, I dig the dinky glissandos throughout “Knowledge God”), “Can It All Be So Simple (Remix)” (again, not bad, but question: has there ever been a remix of a song from a classic album better than the original?), “Ice Water” (again, not bad, but the male background vocals and gimmicky sound effects overtake the rapping and bring you out of the atmosphere that the album worked so hard for, leaving me completely puzzled to see it commonly referred to as a highlight), “Spot Rusherz” (wherein nothing happens) and “North Star” (because “Heaven & Hell” was the perfect closer). I’ve just reduced a 69:30 minute album into a brisker 41 minutes with almost non-stop momentum and more variation; you’re welcome.
The details in the beats, as they come: the stomping drums and blaring hook of “Criminology” (like they’re on their way to war); the hooky interval throughout “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and how the cymbal happens between it; the string line of “Rainy Dayz”; though I find Blue Rasperry’s contribution to be ridiculously over-the-top, she’s perfect on “Glaciers of Ice” and “Heaven & Hell”; the shaky string punctuated the melodic riff throughout “Guillotine (Swords)”; the moan offsetting the menace of the “WHAT IF HE!” throughout “Verbal Intercourse”; the whistled-into-piano chord throughout “Wisdom Body,” the album’s most romantic cut; the piano loop throughout “Heaven & Hell” (the album’s prettiest beat/the album’s only pretty beat). I previously talked about the atmosphere on the album, and if you question that, I invite you to how the usually playful xylophone contributes to the menace of “Criminology,” or the low but terrifying screech throughout “Verbal Intercourse,” or how the soul sample throughout “Ice Cream” sounds like a woman crying (which makes it all the more uncomfortable considering the song’s about sex).
… to say nothing about the rapping. At a really high-level, this is just quotable after quotable, and as much as you hate Cappadonna’s “I love you like I love my dick size,” I bet you love it too. I guess, of the songs that I listed as highlights, the only negative is that Ghostface Killah doesn’t sound attracted/attractive at all on “Wisdom Body”; he’s still in menace mode, but he’ll correct that for “Child’s Play” in a few years. My favorite verse of the bunch has always been Nas’s opening verse on “Verbal Intercourse”: immediately kicking things off with a little alliteration and internal rhyming before milking the long-e sound for all its worth: “Glamour glitters and gold / I unfold the scroll, plant seeds to stampede the globe / When I’m deceased, by then the beast arise like yeast / To conquer peace, leaving savages to roam in the streets” and throwing this golden couplet just a few lines later: “Smoke a gold leaf I hold heat, nonchalantly / I’m raunchy, the things I do is real it never haunts me.”
There’s a tendency to equate poetic flair with pretentiousness, and I see none of the latter in the following sentence describing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…: “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.” That’s Robert Christgau, by the way; find me a better description of the album and I’ll buy you a beer. No, seriously; you just have to come to Toronto to collect.