Album Review: Raekwon, Fly International Luxurious Art (F.I.L.A.)

fila

Raekwon

Fly International Luxurious Art (F.I.L.A.) (to be released April 27, 2015)

By the time “Worst Enemy,” the final track on Raekwon’s latest release, stopped spinning, just one thing came to mind:

The Wu Gambinos might not be feeling this album.

I guess that’s not a surprise.

More than 20 years ago, Wu-Tang Clan reshaped hip-hop in its image. They were pioneers, taking soulful, gritty tales of urban life, and accenting them with by kung-fu mysticism and mind-bending lyricism. The Wu were more than rappers — they were hood superheroes, spawning legions of fans who still salute the Clan’s Iron Flag.

But that was 20 years ago and any good artist must evolve, lest you wind up like DMX, still howling at the moon in your mid-40s.

Please don’t shoot me, X.

Anyway, the Wu’s last collective effort, A Better Tomorrow, was a sign of their evolution — boys who now have become family men. And while I thought the effort was pretty strong, many fans weren’t on board with their new sound. They wanted the Wu of their youth.

That brings us to the Wu’s resident Chef Raekwon, who has spent the last two years prepping listeners for Fly International Luxurious Art, AKA FILA, which steps away from his gritty origins to flaunt his love of fashion and glamour.

Mostly gone are the rugged sounds that made Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (and its impressive 2009 sequel) a hip-hop classic. You also won’t hear the Eastern-inspired soundscapes of Rae’s vastly underrated Shaolin vs Wu-Tang album. Instead, FILA showcases a more mainstream sound that, while not bad, certainly isn’t what most Rae fans would expect.

But when it works, it works.

On “Heated Nights,” Rae lays streetwise lyrics over Frank G’s elegant production. The track shimmers like champagne glasses but the rumbling bass is just enough to keep things gully. It’s not like Rae’s spitting over “Laffy Taffy” or something.

Rae clearly is a motivational force for Snoop Dogg on “1,2 1,2,” where the Dogg drops one of his best verses in years. Both sound perfectly at home spitting flames across boisterous boom-bap production. And even though single “Soundboy Kill It” seems like it’s been on my iPod for about three years now, its uptempo dancehall energy is still as invigorating as ever.

The tracks mentioned above all are a different sound for Rae, and he adapts well. But…some of the other tracks don’t work as well. Rae’s lyrics are still a sharp as a Ginsu on “Wall to Wall,” but he even he can’t overcome French Montana’s Fisher Price hook. I don’t know who crowned that guy hip-hop’s new hook man but we need a seance to resurrect Nate Dogg ASAP. Speaking of A$AP, Rocky shows up on “I Got Money” but it also suffers from a weak hook. And “FILA World” is overly shiny with little substance.

Even the first single, “All About You” with Estelle, is a perfectly acceptable radio-friendly joint, but we’re talking about Raekwon here, one of rap’s elite. “Perfectly acceptable” is a step down from expected greatness.

But longtime Wu fans can rest easy knowing that RAGU is still in the building.  Rae’s partner in rhyme Ghostface Killah shows up on two of the best tracks, “4 In the Morning” and “Revory (Wraith),” turning back the clock to the Clan’s glory days. Even Rick Ross brings his A-game on the latter — credit Bluerock’s vicious beat for that inspiration.

I expect plenty of crotchety Wu fans to complain that Rae is no longer rapping like a 25-year-old on FILA, and that’s pretty unfair. An artist has to evolve to stay relevant, after all. Besides, Rae’s lyrics aren’t the problem with FILA — his Scorsese-esque storytelling is intact — it’s the album’s shiny new soundscapes that he has trouble adjusting to. The result is an album that’s a bit uneven — brimming with promise sometimes while a bit directionless at other times.

FILA might not fit as comfortably as Rae’s Wallabees, but it’s still worth trying on.

Best tracks: “1, 2 1, 2,” “Revory (Wraith),” “4 in the Morning”

3.5 stars out of 5

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