This is the latest entry of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I will examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Raekwon’s Immobilarity (1999)
I make no secret of my devotion to all things Wu-Tang. I’ve studied their albums, their synergies, and even made it a point to be there to drink a beer dedicated to them.
But I’m also a realest, an honest disciple, and I’ll be the first to tell you that the Wu has had some rough times. Neither 8 Diagrams or A Better Tomorrow were good and it looks like they’ve become the hip-hop version of The Rolling Stones: no one wants to hear their new stuff but people will still pay money to see them perform their classics live.
But this isn’t the first slump for the Clan. After their epic, sprawling, massively successful second album, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever, RZA’s Five Year Plan had been achieved so he loosened his grip on the group and their music.
Between then and their third collective effort, The W, came a slew of solo albums from virtually every member of the group, very few of them coming close to matching the quality of the five solo LPs that had been released between the group’s debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Wu-Tang Forever.
One of those original five had been Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, a loosely-based concept album about two small-time hoods trying to get one big score and then leave the crime life behind forever. The best album in a year that was packed with great rap albums and instant classics, the combination of Raekwon and “co-star” Ghostface Killah on the mic and RZA’s cinematic production behind the boards merged together perfectly to create a hip-hop masterpiece. In his classic “Triumph” verse, Inpsectah Deck said, “die hard fans demand more” and by 1999, they were demanding a second Raekwon album.
In the early years of the Internet, long before social media, news was slow and very little was known about most of your favorite rappers’ albums until they were released. But at some point in 1999, Rae announced he was preparing his sophomore disc, Immobilarity, and warned that Ghostface would not be featured on the album and, moreover, RZA would not be at all involved in the recording process, either. This was troubling – two of the biggest reasons for the greatness of Cuban Linx would be absent from Rae’s sophomore release.
The album title is taken from The Godfather Part III, referring to the European conglomerate that owned billions in real estate with the Vatican as its largest shareholder. However, that group was “Immobiliare” and I’m convinced that Rae just spelled it however he wanted. His later explanation – that it was an acronym standing for “I Move More Officially By Implementing Loyalty And Respect In The Youth” (which would actually make it a backronym) – is somehow even worse.
Naturally, the first song after the intro is a crime caper about rival drug dealers called “Yae Yo” and it finds the Chef back in his comfort zone over a driving beat provided by one of Puff’s Hitmen, Carlos “Six-July” Broady. “Casablanca” and “100 Rounds” are cool, but quickly sound repetitive. A big reason why Cuban Linx resonated was that even if the subject matter was largely the same on every song, it never sounded the same. That is not the case here.
Raekwon gets deep on “All That I Got Is You Pt. 2,” but it’s a pale imitation of Ghost’s original and “Forecast” is a shout out to every city that has shown him love that should have been left on the cutting room floor. His crew, American Cream Team (now known as Ice Water), hop on two songs and fail to impress. The only Clansmen to pop up are Method Man and Masta Killa and even they don’t do much to help the overall quality of the project. The undisputed highlight is “Live From New York,” the album’s first single, proving Raekwon could make a great song without RZA or the Wu. Sadly, it’s the exception.
The vast majority of the beats are provided by three virtual unknowns – The Infinite Arkatechz (five beats), Triflyn (five), and Naheen “Pop” Bowens & Vo (four) – and they all sound generic. Save for a few that bang, the music is soft and lifeless. No matter how much Rae brings, the beats just sit there. Even Pete Rock provides a rare dud on “Sneakers.” It’s interesting to hear Rae rhyme so passionately about footwear and the scratches are dope, but the beat sounds like something from a demo.
Rae’s flow has always been water and, unlike some of his later work, he’s full of energy and sounds hungry as ever on Immobilarity, but he is largely undercut by the production. His lyrics here are better than ever, but the rest of the product (beats, hooks, subject matter, guests) doesn’t come close to matching him, the story of so many great lyricists who put out average albums. There are a couple of good songs, one that verges on being great, and an entire album full of mediocre ones.
This was not Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II (that wouldn’t come for another decade). This barely felt like a Wu project. There is not a single track produced by any of the Wu-Elements (RZA, 4th Disciple, Tru Master, Mathematics) and it is first Wu-Tang album not to feature the logo (unless you believe that Rae’s body is the logo on the cover).
It’s admirable that Raewon was so focused on not competing with his classic debut that he chose to go in a different direction entirely.
Unfortunately, it was the wrong direction.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Tha Doggfather | Blood in My Eye | The Best of Both Worlds | Can-I-Bus | Beats, Rhymes and Life | Encore
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.