Raekwon’s second act

Boston Globe, December 11, 2009

NEW YORK – On a late Monday night in a Brooklyn industrial zone, with the damp chill of early winter descending, trucks clatter down deserted streets, and the rapper Raekwon settles in for a session in the place where he feels most at ease: the studio.

“We had a day off, so we decided to come and just be in the environment,” he says. “It’s like going to practice.” Around him in the studio lounge, a small posse of managers, engineers, and random associates munch on Mexican takeout and contemplate a football game. Lush mid-tempo beats swirl out from the production area. People drift out onto the roof.

It’s a welcome moment of respite for the folk hero of Staten Island and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, who will play the Paradise next Thursday. It is one stop on a grueling tour schedule in support of his new album, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II.”

He is also basking in a return to relevance that is often denied hip-hop artists of a certain age. The first “Cuban Linx” album, his debut, came out in 1995. Widely viewed as a classic for its cinematic storytelling-style full of urban pathos and grit, laced with sumptuous production from Wu-Tang doyen the RZA, it set a standard that Raekwon’s two subsequent albums never reached.

It was also, in retrospect, one of the last chapters in the golden age of independent New York hip-hop, before industry homogenization took hold. The double burden – of living up to past artistic glory, while finding a business space in a changing commercial landscape – is one that has gotten the better of numerous rap pioneers.

In the works since 2005, beset by producer reshuffles and multiple delays, “Cuban Linx, Pt. II” long seemed destined to the phantom status of many a hip-hop comeback project. But not only has the record come out, released independently in September on Raekwon’s IceWater label, it has attracted lavish acclaim as perhaps the hip-hop purist’s album of the year.

To Raekwon, 39, all this spells part vindication, part relief. “A lot of people have been waiting for this album for a long time, so it wasn’t a walk in the park,” he says. “To bring something back and complement it – something we did over 15 years ago – wasn’t easy. To go back down memory lane, knowing that everybody’s in a different frame of mind.”

Everybody, in this case, means the most comprehensive Wu-Tang reunion in some time. Wu stalwarts Ghostface Killah, GZA, Method Man, and others all appear on the record. RZA is listed as executive producer. But the production team includes other hip-hop heroes of yesteryear, including Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon, Dr. Dre, as well as beats from the late J Dilla.

The record’s sonic consistency, despite this large roster, is a tribute to RZA’s influence on his peers. “If nobody knew that it was different producers they would have assumed that it was RZA who did the whole thing,” Raekwon says.

Also remarkable is the peak form in which the record seems to find all its participants. Hip-hop guest appearances are sometimes lazy or trite, but here, the Wu-Tang members trade verses with all the creativity and gusto that distinguished them a decade and a half ago. The chemistry among them, Raekwon says, is undiminished.

“One thing about our crew, we feed off each other,” he says. “If we’re all feeling comfortable about a certain track, whoever gets on it first, if they lace it, automatically the next man has to improve. Because now it becomes a competition within ourselves. A friendly competition, but still a competition.”

A project like “Cuban Linxs, Pt. II” is inherently nostalgic. The song themes, long on coke tales and gangster comeuppances but generous in their portrayal of intersecting lives in the city, come from a familiar Wu-Tang storyboard. The lyrics concede little to the passage of time, save a call for withdrawal from Iraq, and a moving tribute, “Ason Jones,” to the Wu-Tang’s troubled jester Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004.

But to Raekwon, the record is also proof of life – for himself, but arguably for all of independent hip-hop as well. “I wanted to show and prove to the world that I’m still here,” he says. “I did it my way, the way that if you don’t work hard, you’re not going to receive results. If you don’t work like a slave, you’re not going to eat like a king.”