Fly International Luxurious Art was announced way back in 2013 as F.I.L.A., which also seemed like a dumb-ass title for Wu stans that had been patiently waiting for Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Part III. That dream could be a long way off now, though, since Raekwon has been trying to ignore his Wu-Tang Clan connections as if it were his day job for quite a few years now. To that point, the only Clan member or affiliate that even pops up on Fly International Luxurious Art is Ghostface Killah, and that seems to be more of a bone thrown to Wu stans than it is anything else, since Rae has been noticeably absent on the fifty-seven-or-so Ghostface albums that have dropped in the past two months.
The title, which works with my observation that rappers love forcing any word into becoming an acronym for something entirely unrelated, marks this album as an ode to Raekwon's "stylish" side, according to early promotion he did for it. He also kept referring to the thing as a "lifestyle project" and spoke of wanting to create an album with the broadest possible appeal, or "global status". So, not a Wu album. Gotcha.
Aside from Pretty Toney, Raekwon has stacked the deck with guests from outside of his immediate wheelhouse, with names such as Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, and A$AP Rocky popping up. Other critics have used that roster to proclaim this album as Raekwon looking to the future of hip hop, but aside from Rocky, all of those guys have been around for quite a while, so I'm not sure where they got that shit from. (His 2012 EP, Lost Jewlry, which, sadly, isn't a typo, featured a collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, which would have helped that distinction make more sense had it been included here. I've also just realized that I never wrote about Lost Jewlry, so I have to get on that, maybe.) Production comes from the likes of Scram Jones (a frequent Raekwon collaborator), S1, Scoop DeVille, and, most curiously, Jerry Wonda, best known for his work alongside Wyclef Jean.
Fly International Luxurious Art was intended to drop in 2013, but the ever-gracious Raekwon allegedly put his own project on hold in order to focus on recording for the Wu-Tang Clan's A Better Tomorrow, which was supposed to signify the twenty-year anniversary of their debut, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but was released instead as a tax write-off in December of 2014, a year late and a dollar short. Since that shit tanked both critically and sales-wise, Raekwon quickly readied this shit, which was, again allegedly, completed in 2013 and released as it was, although I don't necessarily buy it. I'm of the camp that thinks Raekwon was unable to stir up any interest or media support for the project in 2013, so rather than drop an album with zero awareness, he chose to hold off. I believe this for two reasons: (1) Fly International Luxurious Art was released by Ice H2O, Raekwon's own goddamn record label, so it's not like he couldn't convince the back office to drop an album from the president of the fucking company, and (2) Ghostface Killah's 36 Seasons dropped one week after A Better Tomorrow, so obviously he was working on both. And also, Ghost's Twelve Reasons To Die dropped in 2013, the very year Raekwon was gifting to the Clan's work as a collective. So either Ghost is a dick, or someone's not being entirely truthful.
With almost no Wu involvement, and with our host talking trash to the press every chance he gets about The RZA's failed vision, it's safe to assume that this will not sound anything like his previous albums people seemed to actually like (including Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang, recorded the last time Rae was miffed at The RZA), but possibly more like the atrocious Immobilarity.
Pretty fucking stupid. What have we ever done to deserve this, Rae? All this intro proves is that you're incapable of listening to anyone telling you “no” in a direct manner. Which, come to think of it, may explain a lot about the man's solo career.
2. 4 IN THE MORNING (FEAT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
The first actual song on Fly International Luxurious Art is a Scram Jones-produced ditty with an interesting beat that carries the dramatic intensity of an early 1980s cop drama. Although he actually sounds okay, our host's crime tale is woven through the bars of his narcoleptic alter-ego I call Zzzkwon: the man mumbles through so many details, it sounds like he's actively trying to throw the feds off of his scent. Weirdly. He only sounds awake while speaking the titular phrase, which makes up the hook. Rhyme partner Ghostface Killah, fresh from ruining BADBADNOTGOOD's Sour Soul, pops in to spit the final verse, and at least he remembered to pick up a Red Bull before arriving at the studio that day. This beat is pretty fucking good, though, so that's a decent start.
3. I GOT MONEY (FEAT. A$AP ROCKY)
Which is more than I can say for the store-brand-name “I Got Money”, an S1 concoction with an annoyingly radio-friendly beat and a hook that actually contains the line, “I got money, nah nah nah nah-nah!” (italics mine) repeated frequently. Sigh. Both Raekwon and his guest, A$AP Rocky, get in a verse apiece, although the Chef also closes out the track, and dear Lord is it goofy to hear him say things like, “Do that shit! Do that shit! Do it!” At least he sounds alert, though. Rocky fares a little better with a throwaway verse, and Pretty Toney pops up here and there with ad-libs, the effects of that Red Bull having not yet worn off. I sat through all of this wondering how Rae got the head guy from the A$AP Mob, inexplicably one of the more popular crews running today even though only one guy is worth a damn, another is savvy enough to be noticed but isn't so great behind the mic, and the rest are no-names (R.I.P. A$AP Yams, a topic that trended on Twitter even though I guarantee the majority of the rap world, let alone the music industry, had no fucking idea who the guy was) and still failed to make something decent, a feat fellow Wu-Tang clansman Method Man pulled off (by comparison) with A$AP Nast on “Trillmatic”. Oh well.
4. WALL TO WALL (FEAT. FRENCH MONTANA & BUSTA RHYMES)
Short version: this shit was terrible. Also, is it obvious to anyone besides me that this was clearly a French Montana solo song that somehow ended up on Raekwon's album? How else can you explain how Frenchy appears on the track more than the alleged star attraction? Raekwon's outro even goes out of its way to give props (do the kids still say that these days? “Props”?) to Frenchy. Then again, Frenchy's intro gives a shout-out to the Chef. Missing in this lovefest is the other special guest, Busta Rhymes, who probably didn't give a shit, since he spends his verse obsessed with his goddamn phone. Remember when Busta mattered? Anyway, the guest roster certainly doesn't automatically damn this song from the get-go, as that would be reductive for everyone involved: although he is by far the worst performer on “Wall To Wall”, the third single from Fly International Luxurious Art, I have a soft spot for Montana's “Ain't Worried About Nothin'”, and, um, I still like early Bussa-Bus? But the end result, complete with its derivative She da God and Snaz instrumental, sure as shit deserves a thumbs-down. Fuck this song.
5. HEATED NIGHTS
After a poorly-acted interlude that somehow continues the story kicked off during the rap album intro (and then never again, if I'm remembering the rest of the album correctly), the Frank G.-produced “Heated Nights” plays out, the first track Raekwon has handled by himself thus far on Fly International Luxurious Art (and the first of only three such songs total). It lasts barely three minutes, so it just flies by, but to the Chef's credit, he rides the beat well. Content-wise, our host says nothing new: crime raps are his bread-and-butter, after all, and besides, nobody buys a Raekwon album to hear his thoughts on dark matter. But this was alright. Forgettable to a fault, but alright.
6. F.I.L.A. WORLD (FEAT. 2 CHAINZ)
Although I do like some of Scram Jones's other production work for the Chef, his beat for this not-really-a-title-track almost goes out of its way to prove that Raekwon only really sounds good over either RZA production or gritty street shit. It's difficult to see “F.I.L.A. World” as anything but a failure: our host's flow is apathetic, and it sounds downright boring over this middling instrumental that wants to exude elegance when it grows up, but we all know it's just going to die from a heroin overdose at the age of nineteen. Also, 2 Chainz? He must only be here so that Raekwon can keep his not-well-hidden connection with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music alive. At least Tity Boi has a sense of humor about all of this, though.
7. 1,2,1,2 (FEAT. SNOOP DOGG)
I actually dig this shit a lot. Scoop DeVille's beat is an old-school-tinted monster, and both Raekwon and a rejuvenated, downright chilling Snoop Dogg have fun taking turns in dismantling it. And is that Ghostface Killah with the random ad-libs again? Why yes, it is (I'm assuming). Calvin sounds right at home over Scoop's instrumental, but the environment is also hospitable to Raekwon's brand of shit-talking, and the end result is not only the best song from Fly International Luxurious Art thus far (and, after listening to the rest of the album after finishing this sentence, I can safely say this is the best track on the whole fucking project), but also the most fun Chef Raekwon seems to have had recording anything ever. This shit bangs.
8. LIVE TO DIE
The Chef's second for-dolo joint is another S1 production, albeit one that is moderately better than “I Got Money”. At least it fits our host's default crime tale setting, I guess. The problem is that the story told on here rings hollow: this is the same shit our host has been trying to sell us since day one, and after twenty years in the game, one starts to feel that Raekwon doesn't really live that life anymore. Side note: 2015 marks the twenty-year anniversary of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Aside from that documentary that Rae is producing, how did you want to celebrate? There's got to be a cake, yes, but did you want to do a potluck, or...?
9. SOUNDBOY KILL IT (FEAT. MELANIE FIONA & ASSASSIN)
This is the second single from Fly International Luxurious Art, released nearly two fucking years ago. Of course, this project was also supposed to drop two fucking years ago, so I guess it's interesting that Raekwon chose to leave it on the album and not discard it in favor of newly-recorded material, like most other rappers might have. The beat is actually pretty decent, even if the combination of Jerry Wonda and Swizz Beatz doesn't sound the most naturally-occurring. To his credit, Rae actually does kill this shit. Guest crooner Melanie Fiona doesn't get in the way, and other guest Assassin, who has since appeared on much higher-profile tracks from Kanye West (“I'm In It”, from Yeezus) and Kendrick Lamar (“The Blacker The Berry”, from My Master's Thesis Set To Funky Jazz) , also fits in nicely. Full disclosure: I know this shit is really old, but this was actually the very first time I had ever listened to “Soundboy Kill It”. I think the whole “featuring Melanie Fiona” thing, paired with Rae's frequent rhyming over R&B tracks and his penchant for rapping with pretty much any artist that will have him, turned me away back in 2013. I know, some Wu stan I am, right? Because of that, I have no idea if this song actually holds up well two years later, but I kind of liked the way it is right now. But I wouldn't call it essential listening.
10. REVORY (WRAITH) (FEAT. RICK ROSS & GHOSTFACE KILLAH)
“Revory” isn't an actual word. That shit bothered me so much throughout the track that I had to go back to it in order to actually write about the goddamn song. It flat-out doesn't exist. Try to Google it. You'll come up with a ton of entries for this very fucking song, and maybe a city in a distant country. My best guess is that Raekwon meant “reverie”, as in “a state of dreamy meditation” or “a fantastic or impractical idea”, since both meanings weirdly fit in with the subject matter of the three rappers present, as they all spit about improbable fantasy lives. The beat's alright, and Officer Rick Ross doesn't sound horrible, but he takes up the space that should have been gifted to Pretty Toney, who performs the shortest verse on here. Although Ghost sounds pretty awful, truth be told. Anyway, bleh.
11. ALL ABOUT YOU (FEAT. ESTELLE)
The very first single from Fly International Luxurious Art, also released nearly two years ago. Rae must have really loved these older songs. Recorded ostensibly in a time when guest singer Estelle was more of a thing, the final Jerry Wonda beat of the evening takes the Chef into a poppy, radio-friendly arena that doesn't complement his style. It's weird to hear our host shout out the Wu during his second verse, but remember, he recorded this shit well before A Better Tomorrow tarnished the Clan's legacy, back when he still liked those guys. Not terrible, but I'm struggling to figure out what audience this was intended for.
Scram Jones's third and final beat for the project is used up for Raekwon's last truly solo offering. The instrumental is overly busy, as Scram mistakes depth for “I'm going to throw every loop I have into this bitch”, and as a result, the music overpowers our host for the entire running time of “Nautilus”, which, bizarrely, does not sample your favorite producer's favorite Bob James song. Then again, Rae (and Ghost and Cappadonna, if we're being technical, which I am, anyway) already did that with Ghost's “Daytona 500” (from Ironman), so maybe the title was meant to be ironic.
13. WORST ENEMY (FEAT. LIZ RODRIGUES)
Raekwon ends Fly International Luxurious Art with “Worst Enemy”, a storytelling effort that plays as his failed audition for Ghost's 36 Seasons. The beat, by Matthew Burnett, a relative unknown even though his many production credits for some of the biggest names in the game and Tyga prove otherwise, is a piano-driven number that stagnates the intensity, seemingly interrupting the Chef's frame of mind, throwing the energy off for much of the track, which is already not much of a challenge when the star attraction falls asleep mid-joint. The hook doesn't fare much better, loud and obnoxious for no reason: guest Liz Rodrigues most likely thought this beat was intended for Eminem. A meh way to end the evening.
THE LAST WORD: Fly International Luxurious Art, terrible title aside, actually isn't the worst album that Raekwon could have dropped. A lot of it isn't very good, though: with the increased number of guest stars on nearly every song, the Chef isn't given much room to work, and his lack of focus is apparent throughout. It's also laughable that a dude who is best known for his gritty crime narratives would actively try to make an album that is blatantly aiming for worldwide popularity: even with R&B hooks, when was the last time any of you two heard a new Raekwon song on the radio? And if he were really trying to honor the new class while staying true to his own roots, there are tons of different artists he could have involved in this album's creation: hell, just for production alone, Rae could have signed on Yeezus-era Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator (yeah, I know, I'm surprised, too), Harry Fraud, maybe even Clams Casino, and as for new-school rappers, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Vince Staples, Pusha T (not really new-school, but you get the picture)...there's a near-unlimited number of rappers out there. And he chose to work with...Rick Ross and Busta Rhymes, two guys he's already established relationships with before. So while a handful of tracks are decent enough, Fly Luxurious International Art is destined to lose its value the longer it collects dust on iTunes' virtual shelf, its promise squandered in favor of whatever the new new is. But at least "1,2,1,2" was good, I suppose, but not "buy the whole album" good.