When its predecessor arrived almost 15 years ago (alongside GZA's classic Liquid Swords), it finished the job N.W.A. started, turning gangsta rap into a mainstream phenomenon that was as accepted in the suburbs as the inner-city streets that were its subject. Raekwon's two subsequent releases did little to burnish his reputation, setting the stage for one of the most hotly anticipated sequels since The Empire Strikes Back. Like most sequels, it suffers somewhat from its adherence to a time-tested model. While Scorcese managed to continually reinvent his mobsters, the keys, guns, pyrex and cream of Raekwon's gritty tales have yellowed like a smoker's teeth.
Still, there's little quarrel with the execution. While the album starts slow, by the time it finishes its first third, with "Black Mozart" and Ghostface Killah's fine "Gihad," the engine's purring. The backing tracks complement the crackling wordplay and rhyme with a minimalist mix of eerie horror synths, kung fu movie samples, diva R&B croon and distant echoing snares invoking a grimy post-apocalyptic landscape. Whatever its flaws, there's plenty to sustain interest, particularly across a hard-revving last half highlighted by "Have Mercy," "We Will Rob You," "Mean Streets" and "Ason Jones." But in the end, it's more Temple of Doom than Godfather II.— Chris Parker
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