Mafioso rap will always be my favorite subgenre of hip-hop. Part of it may be due to the fact that I think that drinking expensive champagne while eating lobster linguine is the coolest shit ever, but I think it mostly has to do with the cinematic experiences that the classic Mafioso albums offer. From the high-end excesses of Kool G Rap to the cool exercising of power by Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt, the best thing about the mid-1990’s explosion of mobster hip-hop is that nearly every track would paint you a picture of excess, power, and paranoia. And that picture was always very, very cool.
My favorite of them all has to be Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Raekwon’s sprawling epic of an album drops you into every aspect of a drug empire at a given moment, and The Chef guides you with a cold intensity that no MC could rival. Ghostface Killah as co-star is the perfect counterpart to Raekwon, with Ghostface playing Joe Pesci to The Chef’s DeNiro. The frantic tone and main themes of the album are played out in the album opener Striving For Perfection, with Raekwon becoming disillusioned with his hustler lifestyle. Fitting, then, to go into his first verse of Knuckleheadz by boasting of the wealth the lifestyle brings, in order to remind of the reason of all the stress. Ghost balances it out with a detailed jacking scene.
Most songs on OB4CL find this symmetry of both living the high life of a drug kingpin and at the same time being responsible for the dirty work done. If albums like Reasonable Doubt are The Godfather in the sense that it extols virtues of mob royalty, then OB4CL is Goodfellas; the close band of enforcers and dealers that learn to love their lifestyle.
Raekwon, Ghost, and nearly every member of the Wu-Tang Clan set the scene and lyrically detail their exploits (including Nas with one of the finest verses of his career on Verbal Intercourse), but the master architect of the entire tone and flow of the album is the RZA. The beats are top-notch here, from the grimy bang of Incarcerated Scarfaces and Ice Cream to the more soulful and melodic mood music of Heaven & Hell. He also keeps the cinematic vibe going with samples of dialogue introducing nearly every song. He goes from Hong Kong action-crime using a sample from The Killer, to classic gangster (Scarface), to blaxploitation (The Mack). Ultimately RZA makes the album a cohesive masterpiece.
The best aspect of the album, and the reason that I put it above other albums of the era, is that it makes the protagonists of Raekwon and Ghost doubtful in what they do, yet very very good at it. They have to deal with the moral complications and paranoia of working in a crime syndicate, but their success is assured due to their skill as crime lords. It makes the whole thing a relatable fantasy, and makes the listener feel like a bad-ass at the same time. Don’t take my word for it; if you haven’t heard the album, fucking buy it now. And if you have, take another listen; you’ll be surprised at the masterpiece.