Raekwon the Chef isn't much of a destiny guy. The Staten Island rapper is more of the you-create-your-own kind. But it's impossible not to think that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the album he was destined to make.
As part of the Wu-Tang Clan, Raekwon helped turn hip-hop on its ear with 1993's landmark Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Two years later, while the infamous collective continued to build their brand with solo albums, he was more than ready to shine on his own.
Following efforts from fellow Wu members Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon (whose given name is Corey Woods) batted third in the line-up. And even though most assumed OB4CL would serve as a solid release for Wu-Tang, few earmarked it as an album that would end up in the conversation of hip-hop's most influential.
That came, in part, with the album's undeniable credibility—its violent inner-city narrative painstakingly detailed and surprisingly accessible.
Wu mastermind RZA was also hitting his stride at this point, producing the perfectly foreboding backdrop of beats, loops and samples to highlight the cinematic storytelling of Raekwon and main guest-star Ghostface Killah.
Or maybe it all came down to the construction of the album as a whole—an unwavering, brutal fable about drug trafficking and redemption spanning every one of its 17 tracks. Whatever the case, OB4CL was a game changer.
Raekwon's solo debut turns 20 this year and he's hitting the road with Ghostface to celebrate. Retrospect allows fans to debate the album's impact on everything from Mafioso rap and MC aliases to meticulous storytelling, unique slang and product endorsement. But according to the man who made it, nothing was more important than keeping things real.
"When we was writing it," Woods tells CityBeat from a tour stop in Kentucky, "there was a lot of pain in those pens. We was just really trying to give people a movie, or a film, where you could go, Wow. That's real.' And you can't run away from reality. When I sit here and think about 20 years, and we go back and reminisce on these songs, it's like, they've become so common because that shit's actually still taking place. Now I become more than just an artist, I become a prophet of what's going on."
Although the 45-year-old rapper had the foresight to keep the devil in the details on his debut, his clairvoyance stopped short of realizing the album also had a broad-based appeal.
"I was surprised it reached that level," says Woods. "That wasn't my intention. I just wanted to speak for that particular audience of people. It's more like an album from a kid speaking about pain, just trying to move with the times and survive. But the success of it shows there are all kinds of people out there that understand these stories."
Raekwon & Ghostface Killah play August 16 at House of Blues
That's never been more apparent than during recent live performances of the Cuban Linx album.
During his more than two decades in the game, the Wu-Tang star has watched his audience change dramatically. And just like Raekwon's own transformation from street hustler into rap icon, it seemingly happened overnight.
"This tour is a celebration," he says. "But I see as many 45- or 50-year-olds as ones no older than 17. And it's wild to me that they know it like that. We've become The Rolling Stones to these young kids. They go back, study their history and pay attention. Just when we think they're not there, they right there. We living in the modern times right now. Kids know that if they wanna go after the ones that make an impact, you gotta know your history."
And while Raekwon isn't the kind to turn any new fans away, he also isn't content to sit back and get comfortable in a dusty corner of historical context.
After giving his current milestone the attention it deserves, the veteran rapper will re-focus on promoting a limited-edition jacket he recently designed for fans, as well as his sixth studio album, F.I.L.A, released in April.
"I understand that I'm cemented in the game right now," says Woods. "But more importantly, I still got work to do. When you're a winner, you can get whatever you want as long as you feel like that inside. And I want more. I want to be able to really feel like I understand what artistry is all about. To be one of the greats, you got to have a catalog. I'm working on making mine bigger right now."
Despite recent public infighting, it seems the Wu-Tang Clan might not be ready to call it a day, either. Although he didn't address it directly, Raekwon reflected positively about the legendary crew.
"I came from a strong background of individuals," he says. "We all had different styles. But musically, you know, they was willing to walk inside my chamber and see what I was about. And legacy is important. It's almost like completing a mission where you gain the power that was always there."
Whether Wu-Tang can complete theirs on a unified front remains to be seen. But Raekwon is determined to keep working on his for as long as it takes.
A follow-up to his debut, Only Built 4 Cuban LinxPt. II, was released in 2009. Is it possible the MC plans to celebrate it with another 20th anniversary tour when he's 59?
"Hey," he says through a husky laugh. "You know what? I'm not saying no."