How do you honor the anniversary of a God, anyway? An ice-cream cake layered with butter pecan, chocolate deluxe, caramel and French Vanilla — stuffed with bon bons and all that good stuff, topped by a half-century’s worth of waxen fire? A tennis court for his birthday? That misplaced Killer tape? Are you supposed to reminisce when it was all so simple?
The 10-year-old transplanted from Brownsville to Staten’s Park Hill Projects. A slum wizard on the island, surrounded by the children of Gambino’s, Wu and otherwise, already all-city with the Gumby haircut and Gucci shoes. Slang so fresh you’d think it sprung up from organic soil. He earned the cooking alias because he was known for frying up tantalizing platters of whitefish, and for a vague resemblance to the pudgy “Chef” from one of the original Wu-Tang karate flicks. “Raekwon” derived not from Islam, but whole cloth from his lawless imagination, because “it’s one of them authentic names where you don’t hear ’em all the time.”
Step to the street scholar and master criminologist hustling in the underworld, perfecting his craft hallway style — rec room raps, punching the beatbox with your face against the wall. He goes from staircases to stage, soon to get an article in Rap Page(s). The hobby picked up in the lobby became a divine calling. He absorbed the wisdom of the golden-ring era: the isotopic syllable precision of Rakim, the eye-patch asphalt fables of Slick Rick; he lived out the iron duel warfare of Kool G Rap. Throw in the mysticism of Five-Percenter mathematics and the tutelage of RZA and GZA and, as he put it in Check the Technique: Volume 2, “I became an abomination … a wolf in the streets. You put those together and that’s what came out of me.”
This was raw, instant genius, the rap Meyer Lansky crashing your fantasy. If Kendrick Lamar was the first rapper to win the Pulitzer, they should’ve crowned the Chef with a gilded toque blanche a quarter century ago. Is there a better start to a career than his verse on “C.R.E.A.M.”? Is there a better or more compact short story, outside of maybe “for sale: baby shoes, never worn”? He atomized the yellow-tape contamination of crack-era Staten Island into a handful of syllables: “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side/Staying alive was no jive.”
With Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, Raekwon and his Purple Tape co-host, the Ghostface Killah, reinvented the Mafioso rap subgenre, influencing everyone from Nas and Biggie to JAY-Z and Mobb Deep. Everyone who ever made a Scarface allusion or conceived a cryptic epigram owes them royalties. Their impact remains alive and searing in both Roc Marciano and the greater Griselda constellation. The latter paid the God fealty by inviting him to open up their latest compilation, WWCD.
The Purple Tape is a perfect record, from raps to production to skits to sequencing, so rightfully revered that there’s nothing really left to say. I’ll risk redundancy to mention that the chemistry between Ghost and Rae has only been matched by Big Boi and André, Pimp C and Bun B, Q-Tip and Phife, Prodigy and Havoc and, if you’re of a certain age, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith. And beyond the Godbody caliber of the criminology raps, it’s also impossible to ignore the pair’s emphasis on being startlingly original in your art. In the world of modern media — rap or otherwise — a sense of shame for outright theft has long faded. For Raekwon and Ghost, there is an otherworldly pride in their determination to innovate, to synthesize their influences and eradicate the traces. They venerate their idols, but have buried them with honor in blue and cream Wallabees. It’s an indelible idea worth revisiting for anyone attempting to create beyond the shallow laurels of commercial recognition.
It’s long been a pretentious trope to compare rappers to literary figures, but it’s difficult not to equate Raekwon’s work with that of Italo Calvino, when the author and journalist describes an invisible city as the “lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” It could be Shaolin or Zaira. Or when Calvino describes something as “silent and interchangeable,” it’s impossible not to hear the echo of the swift chancellor, whose other half Ghost once titled a never-released album Swift & Changeable. Besides, Italo Calvino is the best Raekwon alias never coined.
For many, surveying the pinnacles of Raekwon’s career amounts to a sort of island-hopping between the early Wu classics, his performances on The W and Supreme Clientele, and his most recent masterpiece, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II. And, admittedly, they’re not wrong to consider those as all-universe moments overshadowing performances that would otherwise be career highlights for a lesser talent. But absorbed in totality, there are practically no bad verses or bad writing across his nearly 30-year career. You can maybe take issue with the beat selection or the guest rappers on certain tracks, but there is a meticulousness to his pen and a lapidary dedication to his craft that leaves him with few peers in any art form. He never stopped striving for perfection. A God MC among mortals. Too many sharks still swim, but Raekwon’s style remains forever, wilder than a praying mantis.