Raekwon has been a busy (Wu-Tang Killa) bee over the past three years. The man was right there every step of the way for the 2010 Kanye uprising; he put out the impeccable sequel to the gangsta rap staple Only Built For Cuban Linx; appeared on Wu-Massacre, the joint album between himself, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man; and put out a solid effort in this year’s Shaolin v. Wu-Tang. On top of this immense output (both in quality and quantity), he’s been touring with and without his Wu clansmen. So, given his success over the past few years, one would think that a mixtape from The Chef is going to be next level. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not even slightly.
Unexpected Victory lacks any focus or direction whatsoever. And that’s to be expected (no pun intended): Surely we can’t begrudge a mixtape for lacking direction– that’s what mixtapes are for. Historically speaking, for established artists, a mixtape is a place to experiment with some verses the MC has been working with, some beats they don’t think are exactly up to snuff with album material, and a bevy of featured up-and-coming artists that the MC has deemed worthy of some airtime. A mixtape is a place to experiment with ideas you have for a forthcoming studio album. So essentially, Raekwon hit all the main points of the historical definition of a mixtape.
But mixtapes have taken a new shape in the past few years. The mixtape means something much different in the age of information. It’s become the main platform for up-and-coming artists to showcase what they’ve got in the chamber. And in all reality, a vast majority of these mixtapes really could or should have been full-length LPs (LiveLoveA$AP, Cold Day In Hell, Return of 4eva, etc.), but that’s just not the way it’s unfolded. For established artists, it’s a way to play around with ideas. These days, for an artist with as much prestige as Raekwon, using the word “mixtape” essentially means that the listener should expect a whole lot less than they would have received from a studio effort, although usually with a few guaranteed gems in there somewhere. Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne, and (no joke) 50 Cent have been consistent with this formula over the past half decade. Some of their best rhymes lie hidden deep in the massive, messy tracklists of their mixtapes. Even T.I.’s latest offering, Fuck Da City Up, was as solid as can be. I wish I could say the same for Raekwon in this instance.
Unexpected Victory is as hollow a mixtape as I’ve heard from a legitimately lauded artist in years. There’s not even a faux-single on the tape. In fact, few are the times you actually get to hear Raekwon The Chef at all. And the times you get to hear him go hard? Almost completely non-existent. The majority of the tape goes to guests nobody really cares to hear, and there is far too much emphasis placed on Raekwon’s featured favorite upstarts. In all honesty, it’s a collection of B level artists rapping and putting down B level hooks over B level production, with Raekwon gracing them with his presence every now and again.
The realest Raekwon gets is on one of the shortest tracks: “A Pinebox Story”. Here is the Raekwon that you know and love. But that Rae only shows up in small doses throughout the remainder of the tape. The only thing keeping this mixtape from being a complete trainwreck are his friends in high places. Mobb Deep appears for a potent verse on “Chinese Marines”, CL Smooth on “Silk”, and Busta Rhymes (who has been killing his guest spots lately) on the crowning track of the bunch, “MTV Cribs”. But other than those few tracks, it’s a messy hodgepodge of mediocrity from no-name MCs and thin production.
It’s my opinion that any Wu-Tang release is worth at least one listen. And I still hold fast to that ethic, especially in this day and age. The Wu-Tang resurgence has been great over the past few years, with Raekwon right at the center of it all. The mixtape is available for free download here, and really, even the worst Wu-Tang release is more often than not going to be as good as the best work of their contemporaries. Victory isn’t going to blow your mind by any means, but it’s the first time in a long time a Wu-Tang brother has stumbled. Due to the high volume of great music they’ve been cranking out lately, maybe we can overlook this pitiful mixtape.
Essential Tracks: “MTV Cribs” (Feat. Busta Rhymes), “A Pinebox Story”