Throughout the 90s, the Wu-Tang Clan had an all-star run of releases, both as a group and as solo artists. Jumpstarted by 36 Chambers and followed by Method Man’s Tical and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, Raekwon’s collaborative Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was primed for greatness.
The LP is known for a variety of reasons in the hip hop world. It helped to popularize the Mafioso rap style, was a perfect concept record, furthered that gritty Wu-Tang aesthetic, and boasted killer verses backed by hot beats, through and through.
In an interview with XXL, Raekwon explained, "I grew up in the street, so I talked about the shit I knew and saw. We did the hustlin’ thing, we did the crime thing; we did all the things that made us feel like mobsters or Mafiosos in some way."
Rae’s message comes across clearly in the lyrics. This is an album that uses mafia terminology to describe the world of a drug-dealing teenager in New York City. On “Knowledge God,” Rae raps, “Mafia flicks, tying up tricks was his main hobby
Teaching his seed, Wu-Tang karate,” furthering the connection between that Mafioso vibe and the Chinese gangster vibe that is embodied by the ninjas who constantly pop up in the Wu-Tang’s music, whether by sample or lyrical reference.
To back up just a little, OB4CL only popularized street life, Mafioso hip hop during the mid-90s, right before Jay Z and Nas adopted the style for some of their early albums. Kool G Rap was doing it in the late 80s, but it didn't really catch fire until the Wu dropped this record.
While Rae is big name on the marquee, it’s widely agreed upon that this album wouldn’t be half as good if Ghostface Killah wasn’t on twelve of the record’s seventeen tracks. Apparently Ghost was living a really delinquent lifestyle back then, as he laments in a XXL interview, "Back then I was punchin' a lot of rap niggas in their face, and niggas was getting beat up in the clubs. We were banned from everything. They wouldn't even let me in the Tunnel. Niggas was scared to death when I was out there wilding. I was fucking niggas up, robbing niggas, fucking a lot of bitches, just doing dumb shit." This reckless lifestyle translated into lyrics like the immortal bars he spit on “Verbal Intercourse,” where he appropriately ended with the line, “Me, Nas and Rae got the best product on the block.” It’s a drug reference that doubles as a nod to the illness those three MCs bring on the microphone.
The chemistry between Nas, Ghost, and Raekwon was apparently due to a close relationship between Nas and Rae. Nas said in that same XXL interview that “Rae would come out to Queensbridge, I would go to Staten Island. We'd just ride and hang out all night. We didn't call each other to work. We called each other to hang out. Somehow we wound up in the studio. RZA had a couple of beats. He played them for me. I got on both of them. The other one never came out.” Let’s hope that other joint surfaces sometime in the future.
At any rate, Nas became the first non-Wu member do get a feature on a Wu-Tang album, and has been since given accolades such as an “honorary member” of the Wu-Tang Clan. His contribution to this record was fly, but his ability to jive with these forward-thinking cats is a big part of the reason he’s as highly regarded of an MC as he is.
Aside from Ghostface’s frequent appearance and Nas’ verse, there are a ton of great features on OB4CL, pretty much all of which are as fire as the entire album is. Other MCs on the album include (order listed by appearance) U-God, Blue Rasberry, Inspectah Deck, GZA, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Method Man, and RZA. The latter of which produced album in its entirety, and what a marvelous job he did.
In many ways, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx boasts the ultimate Wu-Tang production out there. It isn’t quite as ruggid and raw as 36 Chambers was, but each beat hits equally as hard. It sounds as if RZA really refined his sound during this era. His vision seemed even clearer and better sculpted with his work on OB4CL. It really took that 36 Chambers vibe to the next level. Beats like “Ice Cream” show his ability to make a melodic hip hop banger, while “Icy Water” is grimy and eerie. “Heaven & Hell” proves he can keep it cool and breezy as well and “Guillotine (Swordz)” foreshadows his work on the soundtracks for The Man with the Iron Fists. Maybe it sounds like a soundtrack because, well, Only Built kind of is a soundtrack.
"The theme of the album is two guys that had enough of the negative life and was ready to move on, but had one more sting to pull off,” RZA said. Each member of the Wu assumed a new name, a ‘Wu-Gambino’- pseudonym, to help get into character. So Ghostface assumed Tony Starks (naturally), Raekwon became Lou Diamond and so on and so forth. Somewhere between their love for Kung Fu culture, Italian Mafioso aesthetic, and the New York street life birthed this incredible concept of a record, which truly helped to set it apart from anything before or after it. The record feels authentic even in its extravagant moments, like when Raekwon pulls a stick-up on “Spot Rusherz”:
“Grab the cell, I got a heist to pull off well
At the end of the week, I'm buying you a L
Lexus nigga, I ain't talking bout Hancock
No time for weed plus no time to get locked
That night, up in the staircase
Cousin had me laced out, skeed all outta my face
We gon' get dat crunchy chump for all of his lump
Don't try to front, you was sweating this Hilfidiger
Guess who walked in having it, his man from Farragut
Confront him with the Ruger on his back, walk in black
Where's your man, where's the sky blue Land at?
Stop playing Wu in the back, smacked him wit the gat”
The record, or “movie” of sorts, even has an epic conclusion. On “North Star (Jewels),” the album’s final cut, Popa Wu drops some dust-settling knowledge on the listener before Raekwon describes one last mafia war scene. The last lines, which say, “And yo, he started, yellin' ‘Them niggas sellin' two for fives!’ But he's a goner and I got my corner. What? I'm feeding my babies, Cash Rules from morn' to dawning,” speak to the entire purpose for this type of hip hop music.
Rae murders an opponent to regain control of his drug-dealing territory, but can you blame the man? With mouths to feed, it’s a necessary evil. At least that’s what Lou Diamond wants you to believe as he follows in the footsteps of great cinematic mafia characters like Tony Montana, Don Vito Corleone, and James Conway. This is the Wu-Tang’s Scarface, or Godfather, or Goodfellas. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a mafia masterpiece where you can’t help but to root for the bad guys.