Raekwon - Criminal records?

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The good thing about being a music writer in New York is that you get to pontificate in earnest professorial tones about scenes like hip hop.

Here, where we don’t take hip hop as seriously, and ‘earnest’ is generally used disparagingly, we miss out. Over there, everybody is at it: hell Jay-Z is talking about “the rhythmic ideas” in Run DMC lyrics in his book, and I spotted the word ‘hermeneutics’ twice in two recent New York articles on rap. Far be it for me to discourage such scholarship – in fact it yields fascinating gems. Kelefa Sanneh’s article on Jay-Z in the New Yorker made the point: “[When writers] talk about “conscious” hip-hop, the genre owes much of its energy to the power of what might be called “unconscious” rapping: heedless or reckless lyrics, full of contradictions and exaggerations (to say nothing of insults)...” He continues to cite songwriter Stephen Sondheim, quoting: “’In theatrical fact...it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.”’

Cocteau says something similar, but let’s hear it from Raekwon The Chef for some clear cut QED:

By the way, I seen your bitch,
She was up in this cat's room
Ski-d up, weed the f**k up,
To top it off look beat up,
With two crack fiends huggin your seed up
I took care of that, though, but don't worry ‘bout it
I got your back though

Raekwon has been making the ugliest facts of street life sound beautiful since 1992. He was born in Staten Island in 1970, to a father who by his own lyrical admission was “shooting that [‘that’s that shit’] in his bloodstream” since 16. He is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan but is also a solo artist where he is remarkable for his consistency – in 1995 he released a solo debut which became a classic in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...and followed it up in 2007 with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt II, another huge hit. His latest album Shaolin vs Wu-Tang is out this month, and features cuts from Nas, Busta Rhymes, and The Roots’ Black Thought.

He is known as a ‘crime rapper’, an mc who swaggers through stories lit with strobic image-flashes and outrageous gangster claims. As a person, Raekwon seems a gentle type of guy, rotund, pug-nosed, with podgy sycamore seed lips and an avuncular air. “I’m not married physically, but I’m married mentally....that’s what you tell your girl” he laughs, addressing me. I tell him I’ll remember it. “Yeah use it, that’ll be your way out.”

I ask him about sexism in his lyrics. “What? I never thought that anyone would put is in that category – I don’t badmouth women – we are one of them groups [as the Wu-Tang Clan] that just rap about everything – we have songs that represent our queens and have songs that represent our bitches.”

Later, when explaining the verse quoted above, he says:”At that time with this guy, when he went away [to prison], she was just doing other shit, getting high, sniffing coke, and runnin’ with the wrong crowd. Like when you have a child with a lady, it’s important that she strong, because she can easily be manipulated by the people that she’s around, she might have lost it because she don’t have her man around no more. They tend to do weird things. Some women are weak and wicked in their own ways.”

Sexist? The jury’s out. Raekwon is a bit forced avuncular on Kanye West: “He’s been progressing in the last couple of years, ‘Ye has been impressing everybody, and doing great songs. Lyrically he’s back where he needs to be at so hey he’s doing good.

“I don’t hate AutoTune, at the end of the day it’s good for certain people, it’s not something I’m in love with – for me I’m in love still with the hardcore music, know what I mean?”

Kanye West is far too knowing to allow himself such an avowal, and is one of the self-aware usual suspects in Dan Chiasson's January article in The New York Review of Books: “Even as rap undermines its whole demented code of money, cars, ho’s, and hustlers, it markets it, markets itself...It makes rap in some ways the savviest and wittiest critique of the business of art ever conducted from inside of artworks.”

This doesn’t apply to Raekwon, Rae is still hungry for the dream, still teen, still keen. His jaded is the stone in his ring, the eyes of the honey he’s scheming - let’s hope he can preserve this idea intact with future releases.