Raekwon | Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (ICEH20) (VIA playbackstl.com)

Raekwon | Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (ICEH20).

Raekwon performs at The Beacham May 26. tickets start at $10.

Raekwon | Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (ICEH20)

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Every song features quality lyrics and flow from the Wu-Tang member, making the rhymes the true strength of this album.

It was four years between the releases of Raekwon’s classic debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and the disappointing follow-up, Immobilarity. It was another four years until the release of The Lex Diamond Story, another disappointing record. Eight years after Cuban Linx, Raekwon needed another classic to re-establish himself as a top MC. During his live shows and on mixtape appearances he began building anticipation by shouting out the sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.. Pt. II. However, over the next six years it became a joke like Dr. Dre’s Detox, until one day out of the blue it was released. Cuban Linx II blew away all expectations, but when he immediately announced his next album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, most settled in for a half-decade long wait. But surprisingly only two years later, Raekwon has followed his second classic with yet another solid effort.

The one constant across Raekwon’s albums is that he is always a great MC with the ability to tell a fantastic story. That doesn’t change on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang; every song features quality lyrics and flow from the Wu-Tang member, making the rhymes the true strength of this album. For instance, the solo tracks “Snake Pond,” “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang,” and “Butter Knives” are particular highlights. Rae keeps them tight and none of the bloat that plagued Lex Diamond Story and Immobilarity is present. I think it is often a novelty for an artist to leave a song short and abrupt, so the listener wants to come back for more. The older I get, though, the more I appreciate it, and many of the best tracks of the album come in at under three minutes. The Chef does it perfectly—I could listen to tracks like “Silver Rings” over and over again without ever coming close to getting tired of them.

Wu-Tang members have always had plenty of guests throughout their solo albums, whether another member of the Clan, an affiliated rapper or a protégé, and Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is no different. Unfortunately, this one of the few weaknesses of the album as many of the guests fail to make a strong impact. Ghostface Killah is excellent as always as Rae’s second in command, delivering excellent verses specifically on “Silver Rings” and “Ferryboat Killaz,” and Inspectah Deck and Method Man also show well. In addition, Black Thought makes a great cameo on “Masters Of Thought.” However, the mainstream rappers really stand out as weak. Jim Jones, Rick Ross, and Lloyd Banks don’t surprise, and Nas really disappoints on “Rich and Black,” where he seems to have reverted back to the late ‘90s. If a few of those tracks had better guests or were simply solo tracks, it would have improved the album greatly.

Since the very first song on their very first album, Wu-Tang has talked about this battle, the Shaolin vs. the Wu-Tang. My interpretation is that it refers to the battle between their styles, interests, and music—new vs.old, classic vs. futuristic, grimy vs. shiny, to name just a few. This battle is really the only running theme throughout the album, which comes out feeling uneven at times. The production is generally excellent but some of the tracks sound throwbacks to the ‘70s, like the excellent beat “Ferryboat Killaz,” and others, like “Chop Chop Ninja,” do sound like 2011. This may be by design, but it exposes some ordering issues and allows a few tracks in the middle to be skipped. This is partially due to those awkward guest appearances, but on the two Cuban Linx records, there aren’t any throwaway tracks. However, despite these issues, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is an exceptionally easy listen and should be hailed as another great effort from the Chef. B+ | Brett Berliner

RIYL: Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan