Raekwon 

Only Built for Cuban Links ... Pt. 2

Blame it on the Auto-Tuned landscape of mainstream hip-hop, or perhaps the backlash against too-cool-for-school rappers, but hardcore rap is in the midst of a major resurgence. Releases by Jay-Z, Rakim, Eminem, Jadakiss, Redman, and other rappers who represent the dark side of hip-hop's "golden" era have been among this year's most eagerly anticipated albums. But Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Links ... Pt. 2 may be the album that towers above them all.

This sprawling crime odyssey, which is the conceptual sequel to the 1995 classic, Only Built for Cuban Links ... Pt. 1, finds Raekwon, the Wu-Tang Clan's most vividly descriptive MC, in top form. The album begins nunchucks out with "House of Flying Daggers." J Dilla's heat-seeking missile of a beat provides the backdrop for this body-rocking monster, which features guest verses from the Wu's Ghostface, Method Man, and Inspectah Deck. The visceral "Pyrex Vision," takes us into the deliberate mind of a crack dealer who's cooking up rock on the stove. On the poignant "Ason Jones," sex, crack, and rock 'n' roll are briefly put on pause as Rae eulogizes the fallen Ol' Dirty Bastard over an instrumental from the late J Dilla.

Throughout Cuban Links ... Pt. 2, Rae remains in the same noir holding pattern he's been in his entire career. While this works mostly to his advantage, Rae's three-dimensional renderings of lawless New York City streets, lavish pads bought with crack money, and Arm & Hammer-stained kitchens are a bit tiring over the course of 22 skit-free tracks. Fortunately, well-timed guest spots, including six cuts with Ghostface, inject enough stylistic diversity to keep Cuban Links ... Pt. 2 from sounding monotone.

Although Cuban Links ... Pt. 2 is not innovative enough and is too self-indulgent to be deemed a classic, there's still plenty for disciples of the Wu to like. Raekwon's ability to pen cinematic narratives like a hip-hop Scorsese is as strong as ever. (EMI)

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