The world of top-40 rap proves to be to Raekwon what dry land is to Aquaman.
Fly International Luxurious Art, the latest from Corey Woods, alias Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Raekwon, is an album more notable for a conspicuous absence than for anything actually present on the album. Specifically, the absence of the rest of the group that made Woods famous. Fly International is the second straight Raekwon album released without the input of the Wu-Tang's star producer RZA, and despite more guest spots than any of his previous solo releases, the only other Clan affiliate to appear on the album is Raekwon's long-time collaborator Ghostface Killah. In an obvious play at pop crossover, the guest list boasts names such as A$AP Rocky, Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross,and 2 Chainz in favour of any of Woods's Wu-Tang partners -- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx part three, this album is most definitely not.
Woods has long occupied a position just outside of pop, providing a grimy edge to songs by top-40 fixtures such as Kanye West and Justin Bieber, but on Fly International the dynamic is flipped; instead of pop stars going to him for hip-hop credibility, he is going to the pop stars in hopes of chart placement. However, with the much-delayed album's release three years after its original announcement (an occurrence that is unfortunately commonplace in the realm of hip-hop), its chance of popular success was more or less dead on arrival - lending an unmistakable air of futility to the proceedings. Fly International was quite likely the most expensive-to-make Raekwon album by a wide margin (in addition to the high-profile guest rappers, superstar producer Swizz Beatz provides the beat on dancehall-inspired "Soundboy Kill It"), and the title's obvious reference to South Korean-owned sportswear brand Fila seems the most obvious explanation for how such a doomed project even made it out of the door. However, while hip-hop and athletic wear have a long and occasionally-illustrious history together, it's highly doubtful that the 2 Chainz-featuring mediocrity "F.I.L.A. Life" will do for Fila what Run-DMC songs like "My Adidas" did for the more-illustrious sneaker company - and even less likely that the cumbersome "Fly International Luxurious Art" backronym will catch on like the much-catchier "All Day I Dream About Sex" has.
The stated intent of Fly International was to make an album that established Raekwon as an international celebrity, living a jet-set lifestyle that finds a hotel concierge telling him "you're a god in this [unnamed] city" in one of the album's more embarrassing skits. While the monster-sized guest spots and lyrics about larger-than-life luxury were intended to give the album an international flavour, the result is merely one of boring homogeneity - a rapper once known for Scorcese-sized gangster epics contenting himself with lyrically recreating Rick Ross videos. The lyrics go in one ear and out another with ease, an indistinct mass of luxury-brand namedrops, celebrity cliches, empty boasting, and drug references that fails to produce even a single quotable verse throughout the album's entire runtime.
Woods is as listenable as ever, possessing a rare talent for effortless flows that has carried him through some incredibly mediocre material mostly unscathed, but the pop scene is no place for a rapper like him -- he sounds completely lost on R&B fluff like "All About You", perversely sounding even less comfortable than he did on the aforementioned Justin Bieber remix. The guest spots fare much better, with seasoned pop veterans like Rick Ross right at home with the top-40 friendly beats and empty subject matter; it should never have been true that Ross outshone Raekwon the Chef on a rap song, but on "Revory (Wraith)" that is precisely what happened. Like a hip-hop Aquaman, Raekwon is king when he's in his element, but when taken out of it, he's stronger than the average man, but not the superhuman that he could be in the right circumstances.