Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was a 1995 album from The Chef Raekown, and the third solo album from a Wu-Tang member. It continued and expanded the Wu-Tang's commercial and critical success. Like all Wu-Tang solo albums, it actually featured all of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, but was meant to show case the personality and ideas of Raekwon, specifically. Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killa was present on many of the tracks, so the album could almost be considered a Raekwon/Ghostface album.
One of the Wu-Tang's tag lines is The Saga Continues, and this album was one of the first embodiments of that. The group album, Enter the 36 Chambers, was full of promise, but because so many new concepts and imagery were crowded into the short album, it would take a while to draw them out. The first two Wu-Tang albums, by Method Man and The Ol Dirty Bastard, were good, but didn't attempt to be epic. And then Raekwon dropped an album that was truly cinematic in several senses of the word. Raekwon is a storyteller, and the album featured sampled dialog from many movies, including John Woo's The Killer. The whole thing unfurled as a loose-knit tale of crime and fortune.
The criminal theme should be mentioned, because it is one of the things that the album is best remembered for. The album was full of mafioso imagery, which was very quickly taken up into a major theme in hip-hop. Tales of crime had been present in hip-hop before, but mostly they were gritty, realistic stories. This album featured Raekwon and his cohort as glossy kingpings drinking expensive wines. This seems to be a prevailing idea of what the album was about, although I personally think it may be exaggerated. The Wu-Tang tend to be multivalent and multidimensional, and there were many themes present, of which both criminality and the specific glamorization of it is one. The album also featured raps based on old-fashioned boasts of lyrical prowess and stream of consciousness lyrics.
On the subject of criminality, however, one thing should be said, because it does lead into what was for me the real theme of the album. It is especially confusing because the album merges Raekwon's real life as a criminal together with his cinematic fantasies. The real stories are very gritty and cautionary, as opposed to the glamorization of the mafioso. The criminal narrative of the album comes to an end in a last song, where Raekwon admits that the criminal life is "living in hell", and Ghostface follows up by saying words to the effect that "you can die in an instant, turned to dust, life evaporated". This is what the saga is really about, trying to make the most of a very limited existence. Or, as Raekwon says:
I live once, though my mind stays infinite
or, in the words of Method Man:
And life is a test,
I'm still paying dues and the last dues are death
It is a powerful theme, and powerful words are used to capture it. It is the ability to tackle these things that make both this album, and the following Liquid Swords
, especially memorable.