The return of Raekwon

The last time we heard Raekwon he was disowning the music of the Wu-Tang Clan. Now, with his long-awaited new solo album finally out, he's rebuilding his bridges with the Clan

Corey Woods is tired, but happy. The rotund rapper with the slurring voice and the mouthful of gold teeth sits in the lobby of a London hotel, chewing over the ups and downs of his musical career in the same way he tears into rhymes that earned him a place among the hip-hop greats. He's just flown in from New York, where last night he finally pronounced his latest album – a sequel and companion piece to his much-praised, decade-and-a-half-old debut – finished, after four arduous and often fractious years. It's been a tortuous and troubled process, with friendships pushed to the limit as the record inched towards release. But finally it's ready, and the 41-year-old better known as Raekwon the Chef is proud of it.

"The whole main purpose of the album is to make you reminisce," he says. "But at the same token, you still gotta show some kind of growth, and we did that, too. My mind is thinkin' in both directions at the same time – on makin' a classic album and still managin' to make it sound like how we was feelin' when we made music way back when. Wasn't the easiest shit, but some geniuses, they go through what they go through to find out how it is to be a genius, you know what I mean? And I really feel like a genius right now, because I know I paid the dues to be that way."

Raekwon was an integral part of the Wu-Tang Clan when the group's 1993 debut album broke the hip-hop mould, and their radical business plan – each of the nine members was free to sign his own record deal, and eventually they all made at least two solo albums – brought them to a position of unprecedented dominance in the rap world. Raekwon's first solo album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx became a revered rap touchstone, and Raekwon's fusing of crack-dealing tales with a vivid feel for cut-up verbal imagery became a key factor in New York rap's development. Since its 1995 release, though, its maker has struggled.

His next two albums failed to meet the expectations his debut had created. Fine performances on solo albums by fellow Clan member Ghostface Killah went all but unnoticed, and Raekwon's verses on the third and fourth Clan albums did not always showcase him at his best. Then, in late 2007, on the eve of release of the Clan's make-or-break comeback album, 8 Diagrams, his frustration boiled over. In a video interview, he launched a stinging attack on the album, and specifically on the production by the Clan's leader, Rza. He claimed that the music the rappers were given to work with hadn't inspired them, that it had little of the energy and fire long-term fans had a right to expect, and that all the other group members felt the same. He refused to have anything to do with the album, failing to appear in the video for the first single, My Guitar Gently Weeps, on which he was prominently featured. Yet what seemed at the time a lunatic piece of self-sabotage now makes a kind of sense.

Raekwon had announced a sequel to Cuban Linx, and said the record would be released by Dr Dre's Aftermath label (a deal that never materialised), the imprint that had fuelled the rises of Eminem and 50 Cent. He and Rza had agreed that Cuban Linx 2 would be released after 8 Diagrams had re-established the Clan, but listening to the new group album, Rae feared a different scenario. To his ears, 8 Diagrams took the Clan's classic sound – scratchy drum loops, portentous martial arts movie samples, sound effects and wonky pianos – too far into a rock-influenced direction. The record would be a flop, his bargaining position with labels diminished, and Cuban Linx 2 was likely to suffer a fate similar to his previous two solo projects. He came out swinging, because he felt he was fighting for his own survival.

"I still wanted to see the family come back to life," he says, looking back on the contretemps. "And when that didn't transpire from the music, it kinda made me feel like I was bein' taken advantage of. I thought, when people heard 8 Diagrams, they'd be like, 'Oh, Wu-Tang is a wrap now – they've lost it.' And I know that we didn't lose it. I was thinkin', 'Damn! I'm sacrificin' my time for something that I know people is gonna ridicule, while I know I'm sittin' here with a classic!' And that shit was fuckin' with me."

Rza produces three tracks on Cuban Linx 2 and raps on one, but the relationship between him and Raekwon is still complex, and somewhat fraught.

"Wu-Tang is the house that Rza built," Raekwon admits. "We can't lie about that. He knows that he put everybody in the situation, and he's cocky about that. What happens is, you look up to somebody who you respected for givin' you the opportunity to be here today, and you kinda hide a lot of the stuff that you all been through. We wasn't tryin' to say 'Rza's music is trash,' because he's not trash. I could never say Rza's trash. But he didn't come with the right formula on 8 Diagrams. I think Cuban Linx 2 will have the Clan back where they need to be, but then it's up for the Clan to be back where they need to be, too. 'Cos it ain't just the album, you know what I mean? It's everything."

Resurrecting his group's fortunes might sound like an overly ambitious mission for an artist in Raekwon's precarious career position to attempt, but Cuban Linx 2 makes good on the promise. Even at the height of their war of words, Rza was in no doubt about Raekwon's prowess, telling me in November 2007 that Rae was "the best MC in the world right now. We argue every day, but his talent is at its fuckin' peak." Tracks such as House of Flying Daggers or the blaxploitation stomp Canal Street validate that judgment, and prove Raekwon's decision to revisit and rekindle past glories as a means of achieving forward momentum was inspired.

And on Cuban Linx 2 Raekwon does relocate his muse in the interplay between dirty sampled loops – what might be called "traditional" hip-hop production – and the scattershot splattering of verbal detail. Surgical Gloves, a track produced by Eminem's tour DJ, the Alchemist, is the album's key moment: over a backing track that revels in its modernity even as it recalls old-style hip-hop production, Raekwon tells a street crime story in a chopped, fragmentary style that reveals narrative through glimpses of detail – a technique deliberately conceived to speed up his storytelling and lend it immediacy.

"That came from visionin' myself bein' back with some of the most ruthless animals in the streets," he explains. "I've been around good dudes that had terrible reputations. My friends, they didn't give a fuck: they would sell to pregnant crackheads, one-armed mo'fuckers with no eyes – whatever. And I felt like that beat made me go back to that ruthless side of us. I'm a storyteller – that's my chamber, that's my box. I'm always tryin' to give you the best story from our side of the table that you could really relate to quick. I understand where I wanna be at, but sometimes the production takes me where I need to go."


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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