Twenty years ago, Raekwon began his first solo album, the claustrophobic, almost ghostly Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, by expressing a desperate desire to escape Staten Island, which the Wu-Tang Clan rapper recently called “like the last borough of New York to be recognized in the game.” “We gotta migrate, get the fuck outta New York,” noted Ghostface Killah over a slice of the score for John Woo’s action film The Killer, and Raekwon was quick to agree. Fast forward to today and the guy is an international star. Accordingly, the intro of his sixth album, Fly International Luxurious Art (F.I.L.A.), is the polar opposite of “Striving for Perfection”. It finds him at an airport amid a flurry of fans and popping flashbulbs, only to encounter a ticket agent telling him that his passport is full, and therefore can’t go to Abu Dhabi. That obstacle notwithstanding, the progression is clear: Raekwon has come a long way since his formative years with the Wu. But it can’t be understated just how important those years were to hip-hop’s development and to the idiosyncratic presence that Raekwon still brings to all the music he makes.
That OB4CL intro was titled “Striving for Perfection”, and to this day, Raekwon will be damned if he doesn’t maintain a perfectionist work ethic (or at least the illusion of one). In fact, he’s gone to some lengths to elevate his own creativity above that of even his closest associates: Just last year, he voiced concern about RZA’s vision for the Clan in light of their divisive (and then upcoming) A Better Tomorrow, lamenting RZA’s disinterest in modern rap and even saying he (Raekwon) “hate[d]” the album’s “Keep Watch”. With F.I.L.A., then, he has something to prove. Though the album is rife with collaborators (with the guest list including rappers like Ghostface, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, A$AP Rocky, and French Montana, as well as singers like Estelle and Melanie Fiona), he still does an admirable job of showcasing the core elements of his aesthetic, including his dense penmanship and his intense focus when delivering those lyrics.
Even with its familiar foundation, F.I.L.A. (which, like previous Raekwon albums Immobilarity, The Lex Diamond Story, and Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, doesn’t feature a single RZA beat) avoids sounding dated, and that’s for the best. When young New York rappers like Joey Bada$$ are criticized for digging up old sounds instead of forming wholly new ones, you know that Raekwon — at 45 years of age — is even more vulnerable to comments that he’s living in the past. He isn’t; F.I.L.A. may be grounded in the ‘90s, but it makes room for more modern-sounding expansiveness and bursts of melody. It’s least effective when it chases too far away from the classic Raekwon sound as we know it: For example, the sorta-weed anthem “F.I.L.A. World”, featuring 2 Chainz being 2 Chainz (“Conversate about me, that’s a chain reaction!”), has a gooey, pink-horizon Scram Jones beat that’s a strange fit for both rappers. But such a sharp, uncharacteristic turn is rare.
A large percentage of the album, then, finds Raekwon in his sweet spot. The Ghostface team-up “4 in the Morning” is menacing Mafioso rap, mixing opulent horns and chaotic police sirens. Immediately after, A$AP Rocky joins the festivities on “I Got Money”, and despite the 20-year age difference, Raekwon/Rocky is a pairing almost as natural as Raekwon/Ghostface. Later, the brassy strut of the Snoop-assisted recent single “1,2 1,2” is another song to make Young Thug eat his words for saying kids aren’t interested in listening to relatively geriatric rappers; together, Raekwon and Snoop can count nearly 90 years between them, but they swap verses with impressive energy. On the other hand, the solo “Nautilus” is the album’s shortest proper song, and, as such, it offers a glimpse of the level of detail Raekwon can fit within relatively narrow parameters.
That lyricism, the world-building ability that made Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and its 2009 sequel reach the pinnacle of rap-as-cinema, is here in fine form. What F.I.L.A. lacks in overt emotional content is made up for with the pleasure Raekwon takes in listing off his lavish purchases and seemingly constant jet-setting. Still, he lets you know that his darker days aren’t that far behind him, and that those tribulations helped him become the uncompromising artist he is today. “You just monkey niggas, meet the apes/ Strictly business, gorillas in 50 states,” he goes on “Nautilus”. Of course, he’s actually worldwide now, and F.I.L.A. is strong enough that it could bring him to newer destinations still.
Essential Tracks: “4 in the Morning”, “I Got Money”, and “1,2 1,2”