1995 was a year of game-changers.
Kevin Garnett was selected with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves that year, becoming the first player taken directly out of high school since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were plucked from the prep ranks 20 years earlier.
In the NFL, the San Francisco 49’ers became the first team to win five Super Bowls when they demolished the San Diego Chargers 49-26 as quarterback Steve Young emerged from the immense shadow cast by his predecessor, Joe Montana. Young tossed six touchdown passes, threw for 325 yards and was also the game’s top rusher en route to earning game MVP honors.
Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig’s MLB record of 2,131 consecutive games played and UCLA won their first college basketball national championship in 20 years behind the smooth versatility of star forward Ed O’Bannon, who scorched in the title game for 30 points and 17 rebounds.
In Hollywood, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino dazzled in Heat, Joe Pesci stole the show as Nicky Santoro in Martin Scorcese’s Casino, Roger “Verbal” Kent melted minds when he transitioned into Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects and Will Smith and Martin Lawrence proved that a movie with two black police partners as the main characters could succeed in Bad Boys.
F. Gary Gray, previously known strictly as a music video director, proved that he was much more than a one-trick pony with his major motion picture directorial debut in Friday.
Friday was huge in two other aspects. It flipped the Hood Movie genre away from the dark, foreboding, disquieting trepidation of films like Juice, Menace II Society and Boyz n the Hood through the hilarity of Craig and Smokey, and the accompanying neighborhood crew of Craig’s family, Ezail, Deebo, Big Worm, Felisha and Red, among others. The film also catapulted Ice Cube, who wrote, produced and starred in it, away from his Hip Hop persona and into the stratosphere of a major player, both in front of and beyond the camera, on the Hollywood landscape.
On the music charts, TLC was creeping, Brandy was talking about her baby, Soul For Real was imagining candy rain, Montell Jordan was telling the world how he did it and Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s ode to the strength of hood love had the hardest thugs crooning, “I’ll be there for you.”
My Brooklyn neighbor with the mad flavor, The Notorious B.I.G., was asking for one more chance while boastfully bragging, “I got that good love girl, you didn’t know?”
R. Kelly found a girl that reminded him of his Jeep, Tupac was dealing with temptations, so many tears and thoughts of his momma and Michael Jackson was reminding everyone that they were not alone.
D’Angelo shook and awakened a stagnant R&B genre with his incredible debut album, Brown Sugar, merging old soul and slow jam elements with funk and Hip Hop in a way that moved things away from digital production and back toward organic instrumental genius.
But for true students and connoisseurs of the Hip Hop art- of lyrical fluidity, ferocity and creativity, of rhymes with the dexterity, power, stunning efficiency and ability to conjure up the flawless visual imagery of a Nadia Comaneci routine, of those lyrical gymnastics solemnly surfing on top of, and being submerged simultaneously, by some of the most driving, pulsating, thumping, elevated and exalted beats ever, there was nothing quite like Raekwon’s initial foray away from the Wu Tang Clan apparatus.
20 years ago, on August 1st, 1995, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx dropped like an atomic bomb. And Hip Hop has not been the same since.
Many people have lauded the work for its visual imagery, for the storytelling that adopts a cinematic tone about the smooth, drug-running criminal who boasts of his status, yet yearns for something bigger and better. The narrators want to check out that out-of-state connect so they can migrate toward a pot of gold and get far away from a life of hustling. They have other plans.
The album is a fast-paced thrill ride through past hurts and disappointments of coming up in the New York City housing projects, of kids whose thoughts floated away from the daily despair through flickering images of Kung Fu flicks, gangster movies and real-life Mafia rags to riches narratives.
Raekwon’s name dons the album, but a true gift of the work is the delivery of one of the greatest Hip Hop duos ever with him and his partner in crime, Ghostface Killa. Rae and Ghost’s give and take is on par with the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Jay Z and Kanye and Andre 3000 and Big Boi.
When you sprinkle and weave in the guest vocal appearances and supreme lyrics of U-God, Blue Raspberry, Inspectah Deck, Cappodonna, Masta Killa, GZA, RZA, Method Man and Nas, who is the only non Wu Tang affiliated artist to appear, the fabric of work takes on an extra level of expert craftsmanship.
Rae and Ghost let us know straight out the gate that they’re striving for perfection. On the skit leading into the second track Ghostface is firm in his intent to, “Smack fire out your F’n ass.” And that’s exactly what they proceed to do for the remainder of the album.
Incarcerated Scarfaces, Rainy Dayz, Can It All Be So Simple, Glaciers of Ice, Verbal Intercourse and Ice Cream are all unstoppable forces of nature. No matter how many times you’ve listened to them, they are uniquely brilliant with each replay.
But the crème de la crème, the singular track that bangs like Mike Tyson in ’89 is Guillotine (Swordz). It is emblematic of the brilliance that surrounds it on the track list, but it also stands alone.
The song opens up with dialogue from the 1983 Kung Fu flick, Shaolin vs. Lama, about a skilled young fighter in search of a master that can edify him and build up his already impressive repertoire with additional and innovative techniques.
After the narrator builds the scene with, “Allow me to demonstrate the skill of Shaolin, the special technique of shadowboxing…”, Inspectah Deck drops one of the most ferocious intros ever known to man.
The lyrics are not merely lyrics, they’re something much more immense, representing the authoritative supremacy and dominance over the Hip Hop landscape that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx will persistently exert through time eternal.
“Poisonous paragraphs, smash ya phonograph in half, it be the Inspectah Deck on the warpath.
First class, leavin’ mics with a cast, causin’ ruckus like the aftermath when guns blast.
Here comes the verbal assaulter, rhymes runnin' wild like a child in a walker!
I scored from the inner slums abroad, and my thoughts so razor sharp, I sliced the mic from the cord.
First they criticize, but now they have become mentally paralyzed with hits that I devise.
Now I testify, the rest is I, Rebel INS your highness,
blessed to electrify.
With voltage of an eel,
truth that I reveal will crush the amateurs who scream to keep it real.
Caesar black down hoodied up and fatigues,
Part time minor leagues receive third degrees.
Attack like a wolf pack, once I pull back
the God-U, and bust through like a fullback.”
He’s making it clear from the jump that the lyrics jumping forth are venomous, and that other emcee’s who aren’t ready for the figurative gun blast need to run fast. He’s boasting that the rhymes are so clever and intelligent, so razor-sharp, that they’re prone to slice and dice.
He’s laughing at those who initially criticized, but now stand stunned by the brutality of their genius. He’s letting the entire industry know that they’re getting attacked by a wolfpack, and the cornballs who hide behind their empty mantra of “keeping it real” are about to get trucked the worst.
Ghostface’s next verse needs to be paused again and again to appreciate and decipher. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, stopping to scream out at no one in particular, “AYO!!! Did he just say like ‘Gorilla’s injected with the strength of 80 midgets!!!???”
Raekwon massages the brain with slang in the ensuing verse while running from Japan to Atlanta with stamina, trailed by clingers and gamblers and gram handlers.
And the GZA brings it all home at the end with another stellar, Jordan-like game-winner at the buzzer. He says,
“I bomb facts, my sword is an axe, to split backs invisible, like dope fiend tracks.
Sky's the limit, [dudes] are timid, and nobody knows, how we move like wolfs in sheep clothes.
Producin’ data, microchips or software, underground and off air.
The Land of the Lost, notorious henchman from the North,
Strikin’ [these dudes] where the Mason-Dixon line crossed.”
Maaaaan, listen! In Wu parlance, the tongue is a sword. The metaphors here are unreal. He doesn’t talk about producing rhymes, he’s discoursing on producing data, microchips and software because the lyrics are so conversationally complex. He’s telling any rapper who thinks they have skills that, in comparison to what’s popping out of the speakers on Only Built for Cuban Linx, they're entering a land that there is no map or navigational equation for, that when dealt with, they’ll be stuck in purgatory, kind of like where the Mason-Dixon line crossed.
The defining element that pushes the album to legendary status is the fact that all of the astonishing lyrics are propelled by some of the most marvelous production ever. The RZA’s choice of samples, the strands of pianos and violins, the layers of elements and overall inspirational creativity on the musical production side are insane. Yo, my man sampled Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” on “Ice Water.” C’mon man, who does that?
It’s a compilation of perfectly crafted, muscular beats, delivered with a nimble lyrical legerdemain comparable to Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker’s mastery of the Sweet Science in his prime.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx features everyone – the full roster of artists and the lone, brilliant mastermind of the producer, at the apex of their creativity.
In these days of wack, banal, facile beefs between Metrosexual thug-wannabe rappers, the vivid radiance, importance and luminous intensity of Raekwon’s debut album grows more apparent by the day.
It’s an album that doubles as a cinematic wonder in its own right.
Just like Verbal Kent walking out of the police station in The Usual Suspects, when you’re done listening to the album, and proceed to cue it up thousands of times over the next 20 years, when it hits you again and again, as it seems to get better and better with time, you know that you’re experiencing some timeless verbal intercourse, something magical, something that will never be duplicated.