Raekwon dropped a free mixtape, in case you hadn’t heard. Of course you have: Rae’s presence, these days, is undeniable. Each and every member of the Clan (yes, even U-God) is eating well simply out of being Wu Royalty, but a slimmer number have managed to retain anything resembling the buzz they feasted off in the 90s. Prior to 2009, RZA’s deeds behind the scenes notwithstanding, it was certainly Ghostface Killah. Then The Chef got together with the likes of Dr. Dre and Pete Rock, not to mention hopping on some Dilla joints, and – finally and most importantly – reuniting with his own group’s production wizard. Only Built….Part II was, for a starved hip hop, massive. In the few years after, Rae’s released a joint effort with Ghost and Method Man along with last year’s solid but lightweight Shaolin vs. Wu Tang. It was an enjoyable affair, with notable highlights, but as a followup to a landmark album, it was rather quiet.
Now that he’s got it, Rae’s not one to let the hype die. Unexpected Victory is 17 songs and 52 minutes of free music. From a godfather, that’s no small gift. Mixtapes, unless you’re Lil Wayne prior to Sorry 4 the Wait, are inevitably marginalized. Guys like Young Buck and Game stack tapes with album-worthy material in the hopes of getting some of that buzz back, but this sort of thing typically only leads to wondering why The Hangover was more stacked than The Red Album. However, this is The Chef.
Hardly one for mixtapes, his even releasing one makes it something of an event. The timing, too, cannot be ignored. Right at the start of the year, when he’s rumored to be working with the likes of Kanye and Just Blaze on an album more akin to West’s last than his own. Considering the title, Raekwon clearly thinks only bigger things lie ahead. While the next album may indeed turn out to be most concerned with harmonies, this tape finds itself somewhere in between a Kanye-inspired Rae and the Mafioso king we expect. 9th Wonder pops in, Scram Jones samples Genesis for a Mobb Deep spot, and so on. It’s musically a relatively diverse affair, but any fearful longtime fans can relax, it’s no great departure for Raekwon, at the end of the day, it fits in tidily with the rest of his catalogue.
Nonetheless, in the end a tape’s a tape, a few classic cuts tossed in with decent records; a fair number of the beats simply serve their function to the slightest, but rising above it all is Raekwon’s performance, lyrically strong as he’s ever been. He’s formed a significant mic partnership with JD Era this time around, who shouldn’t be mistaken as a newcomer, but inevitably will.
In fact, near all the tracks heavily rely on guest influence, with the 9th Wonder beat serving as essentially the sole solo offering. On that track, of course, 9th layers snares and a flawless soul sample, at this juncture, it’s simply what’s expected from the man. Despite its brief length (not even quite a minute and a half) the track serves Rae perfectly; his slithering, smooth voice saturating the beat. It’s the perfect example of the chemistry Raekwon has brewing, the meeting of the new and the old, the meeting of Cuban Linx and that “Gorgeous” verse. The production is consistently bouncy and smooth; CL Smooth spot “Silk” sounds exactly like its title suggests, while “Luxury Rap” both makes the most out of a Fred da Godson appearance and sounds something like a cross of that classic Wu sound and a No I.D. joint. Other tracks that make an impression include the insistent drums of “Soldier Story” and the complacent, boastful vibe of “MTV Cribs,” which again finds the Chef cooking with Busta Rhymes.
So, there you have it, Raekwon returns with material to please both generations of his fans: the long loyal and the growing. Considering the mess that’s resulted from countless other recent hip hop crossover attempts, this alone is praiseworthy. Unexpected Victory sounds at home in the new climate without Raekwon stripping away essential parts of his outfit. Considering this is, after all, a throwaway, one can only imagine what he’s preparing for late 2012. The world learned not to write Raekwon off in 2009, perhaps this year he’ll once again gain, well, victory.