Release Date: Apr 28, 2015
Record label: Universal
Raekwon’s aviation-themed sixth solo outing begins with a wash of ambient airport sounds: roaring jet engines, husky-voiced lady passport officials and paparazzi shutterbugs snapping the Wu-Tang master at arrivals. The message is unsubtle: after two fairly glittering decades in the hip-hop game, he leads a glamorous jet-setter lifestyle far removed from his gritty former life on the streets of Staten Island. The journey to release for new album ‘Fly International…’ though has been a turbulent one, disrupted by a frustrating two-year layover for the rapper.
The sixth studio album from Raekwon is conceptually driven by aviation, opulence, and style, blowing his crew the Wu-Tang Clan's classic track "C.R.E.A.M" into a more money-loving, capitalism-accepting suite of songs. Cash rules everything around the rapper, and yet he's got enough of it that the A$AP Rocky feature "I Got Money" taunts the listener with a child's "nyah-nyah-nyah," while "F.I.L.A. World" "comes out of Bank of America/Big knot on me, I'm comfy" because the revolutionary maneuvers Raekwon is working on here mean finding the bank with the best rates.
Raekwon is the deadpanning, teeth-gritting Don of Staten Island, who’s long cut one of gangsta rap’s more venal figures: a vanquisher-for-hire who comports himself with the utmost criminal sagacity. The new Fly International Luxurious Art follows Rae and a retinue of choice associates (including Wu-Tang Clan co-patriarch Ghostface Killah) as they cart the purest cocaína in North America. Songs like “Wall to Wall” inveigh against existing trade policy, stumping for an embargo on fuck-shit.
The Intro to Fly International Luxurious Art is Raekwon at the airport en route to Abu Dhabi with cameras snapping, fans screaming, and no room for stamps in his passport. This is the vibe that made him famous, and that he seeks to establish once again: Mafioso Rap, drugs, sex, and money under an umbrella of power. Not unlike Only Built For Cuban Linx 2, the rollout for F.I.L.A.
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”.
"More money, more problems?" asks Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon on his sixth solo LP. "You gotta be kidding!" For more than 20 years, Rae has been one of the most gifted heirs to Slick Rick's storytelling legacy; here, he keeps it going with a 44-minute journey into opulence. His rhymes are no less impossibly dense, his metaphors no less vivid ("Meatloaf your man up in the back of the wagon"), his flow no less free-associative ("Knots of hundreds/It's lunch, kid").
Originally slated for release in the first half of 2013, Raekwon’s bafflingly titled sixth solo album has been a long time coming, possibly due to the distraction of a spell of unseemly bickering with RZA surrounding last year’s Wu-Tang Clan reunion album. As befits its messy gestation, it’s a patchy affair. 4 in the Morning and Ghostface Killah collaboration Revory recall past glories, Raekwon’s flow as slick as ever.
Fly International Luxurious Art opens with one of the odder introductory skits in recent memory: a grim-voiced Raekwon ticking off possessions and accomplishments, the murmur of desperate fans vying for the rapper's attention, an agitated flight attendant insisting that his over-stamped passport is no longer valid. Perplexing, yes, but it also gets the message across immediately, signaling the hectic, off-kilter tone of an album insistent on preserving its creator's famed street-focused grittiness while also communicating jet-setting largesse. It's an uncomfortable fit for the Staten Island rapper, and a far cry from the intense, opaque poeticism of his two Cuban Linx volumes, making for an effort that feels both overextended and under-conceived.
It’s no secret that the Wu-Tang Clan is not the cultural juggernaut it once was. The group’s overhyped reunion album, A Better Tomorrow, was not only poorly received by critics but made a scant dent commercially, selling 24,386 copies in its first week before fading from the public consciousness. From the conception of that ill-fated project, the production of the album was plagued by a war of words between two of the group’s most prominent members: RZA and Raekwon.
Fly International Luxurious Art, the latest from Corey Woods, alias Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Raekwon, is an album more notable for a conspicuous absence than for anything actually present on the album. Specifically, the absence of the rest of the group that made Woods famous. Fly International is the second straight Raekwon album released without the input of the Wu-Tang’s star producer RZA, and despite more guest spots than any of his previous solo releases, the only other Clan affiliate to appear on the album is Raekwon’s long-time collaborator Ghostface Killah.
For the past few years, Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon has leaned heavily on the classic gritty, cinematic sound and aesthetic that first made him a star back in the days when he was an unknown underground artist coming up out of the slums of Shaolin. It’s not like anyone has been complaining. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II was widely considered to be one of the best records of 2009 and his solo follow-up Shaolin Vs.
Raekwon’s legacy is set in stone. As a solo artist and member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon has crafted some of the most important works in rap history. Albums like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) have ensured that the Chef will always hold a special place in hip-hop lore. Having achieved such lofty milestones, Raekwon is at point in his career where a new album does little to affect his place in hip-hop.
Anyone expecting classic “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx”-like density and sonic design from the great Wu-Tang Clan member’s sixth solo record is bound to be a bit disappointed to hear him open his sound to mainstream influences. Raekwon remains one of hip-hop’s most detailed and visceral MCs. What’s troubling is the space he yields to popular but less-talented rappers like 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and French Montana, whose overly familiar and vague turns clank when juxtaposed with Rae’s complexity.
Raekwon's foray into luxury rap is, weirdly, one of his least fun and most forgettable records. After an intro skit in which a flustered female customs agent pleads for attention from the well-travelled Chef (who will not stop babbling Rain Man-style about high-end brands and exotic locales), 4 In The Morning promises that this will be a classic Rae LP. Ghostface Killah swoops in to inject the catchy if loping beat with his customary spark after Raekwon does his intricate NYC gangster/drug world narrative rhyming thing like no one else can.