RAEKWON Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (Loud/RCA/BMG) 

The 1995 solo debut from the Wu-Tang Clan rapper is widely acclaimed as a classic, and credited with pioneering the Mafioso rap subgenre, which would explain the “Scarface” and “Carlito’s Way” dialogue samples that pepper the album. To the uninitiated it might, fairly or unfairly, sound like the kind of music heard spilling from a blacked-out SUV on “The Wire”, and, tellingly, the album’s concerns echo elements of that epic programme’s storyline, repeatedly looping back to the protagonists’ hopes and dreams of raising themselves above the street-level crime in which they’re enmeshed.

The album’s sonic backdrop is frequently grim and relentless, laced with gunshots, sirens and the harsh, hard-edged rapping of a crew that includes Nas and practically the entire Wu-Tang Clan. There’s no mollifying James Brown or P-Funk samples here; this stuff is precision-tooled like a Glock. It also anticipates directions that would be further explored on later Clan albums, for instance the brutally slashed string samples that stagger across the soundstage during “Knowledge God” or the ever-so-slightly off-kilter loops on “Criminology”.  Blue Raspberry’s vocals soften “Rainy Dayz”, although the effect is undermined by piercing strings that sound like something Bernard Herrmann might have arranged for a particularly nerve-jangling Hitchcock scene.

Following an in depth discussion of plagiarism in hip-hop, the key take home message being “Don’t bite our shit”, the record seems to rise above the slightly formulaic rut into which it had been grinding itself. “Glaciers Of Ice”, as sampled by The Avalanches on “Avalanche Rock” is a relentless rollercoaster of melody, borne aloft by Blue Raspberry’s helium-throated backing vocals. The woozy “Verbal Intercourse” uses dialogue samples like rhythm tracks, and “Ice Cream” sounds like it’s proffering cones laced with cordite and razor blades. “Heaven & Hell” closes the album with something like a ballad and almost a note of optimism.

Even compared with such no-compromise near-contemporaneous works such as the Clan’s debut “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” is hard going; it’s really up to the listener as to whether they’re prepared to dig deep to uncover its excellence. The album’s hair shirt feel is exacerbated by the poverty-spec packaging of the vinyl release, slapped into a generic black sleeve identified only by a sticker on the front, with nothing as elaborate as cover art or a tracklisting.

Wu-Tang Clan