Label: Loud/RCA Records

Back in the days before so-called gangsters drank rosé, Raekwon created a brutal and haunting lyrical portrayal of the street life, drawing equally from mob flicks and real life in early '90s New York City. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which hit the streets late in the summer of 1995, was not only the first complete and coherent cinematic production from the RZA, who assembled the beats and the rhymes in his basement studio, it stands as the crowning achievement of the Wu-Tang clique. The third Wu-Tang solo record (following Ol Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers and Method Man's Tical) to release, OB4CL set the tone for the remainder of the '90s.

It seems sacrilegious to place OB4CL ahead of Enter the Wu-Tang, which introduced the world to the mythical land of Shaolin and the nine warrior monks who represented for it. But 36 Chambers was, in essence, a full-group demo tape, one made up of battle-rhyme filled, would-be singles held together by kung-fu movie samples and RZA's rugged and raw beats. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was the magnum opus, with more polished beats than 36 Chambers and showcasing the two hungriest members of the Wu—Raekwon and Ghostface.

GZA may be recognized as the Wu's most nimble wordsmith, Ghostface strings together nonsense non-sequiturs like jewels, but Raekwon has always been Wu Tang's best MC, balancing dexterous wordplay, detailed storytelling, and one of the best voices in all of rap.

Rae more or less skipped the entire Wu-Tang samurai swordplay construct, choosing instead to represent the age of Glocks and Cristal, murders and drug deals.

When it all clicks—which is often—the result is a delightfully sinister rhythm, like Dr. Seuss for thugs: "Stand on the block, Reebok, gun cocked/Avalanche rock get paid off mass murderous services/Chef bake 'em, watch the alley cats take 'em/Four-nine made 'em, drop grenades and take 'em," he staccato spits at the start of "Glaciers of Ice," a verse made even more potent as it follows a gleeful (and apparently genuine) conversation between Rae and Ghost about dyeing Clarks Wallabees.

There's a nearly identical moment in "Spot Rusherz": "Heard the key in the lock, cocked the Glock/Turn the lights out, dip behind the couch/Kion, gag his mouth," where a bloody heist is turned into rapid-fire poetry. Even Nas was inspired to new heights, delivering an elegantly bloody verse to kick off "Verbal Intercourse," the first Wu track to feature a non-Wu artist.

Rae more or less skipped the entire Wu-Tang samurai swordplay construct, choosing instead to represent the age of Glocks and Cristal, murders and drug deals. And OB4CL is a crack album through and through, from the lyrics right down to the tint of the original cassette which gave it its "Purple Tape" nickname. Long before MF DOOM sold rhymes like dimes, Rae brought the same message on "Incarcerated Scarfaces": "I move rhymes like retail, make sure shit sell/From where we at to my man's cell/From staircase to stage, minimum wage/But soon to get an article in Rap Page/But all I need is my house, my gat, my Ac/Bank account fat, it's going down like that." And despite warnings to the contrary on "Shark Niggas (Biters)" countless rappers have borrowed the criminal construct of OB4CL since, but none have done it better. —Russ Bengtson

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