One of the greatest rappers to come out of the Mecca of hip hop, there have been few MCs as venerable as the Wu-Tang Clan’s resident don, Raekwon the Chef. Through his decade-spanning catalogue, Chef has crafted a captivating narrative of street life, gangster dramas, and lyrical finesse, embodying the ethos of gritty East Coast rap.

His journey, marked by soaring highs and tempered lows, is reflective of his innate artistic curiosity and unwavering commitment to the art of rapping. The first breakthrough came with his groundbreaking debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… released in 1995. Often referred to as The Purple Tape, this storytelling masterpiece, marked by Raekwon’s intricate storytelling and RZA’s genre-defining production, stands as one of the greatest street rap albums ever made.

A series of distinctively nuanced projects followed this formidable entrance. From the noticeably RZA-less soundscape of Immobilarity in 1999, and the solidifying of Chef’s alter-ego in The Lex Diamond Story in 2003, to the rebirth of the Chef in 2009 with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, each album offered a fresh look into Rae’s evolving artistry.

2011’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was a nod to his roots, a fusion of old and new, whereas 2015’s Fly International Luxurious Art showed his adaptation to an ever-changing hip-hop landscape, seeking new audiences without abandoning his core fan base. His most recent solo offering, 2017’s The Wild, is a testament to his unwavering lyrical prowess and storytelling abilities, confirming Raekwon’s enduring potency within the rap game.

So let’s get into it. From his 1995 game-changing debut album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, to the acclaimed debut and his latest release, The Wild, we rank every Raekwon album, from worst to best.

Immobilarity

Released: November 16, 1999

Label: Loud, Columbia, SME Records

Singles: “Live From New York”, “100 Rounds”

Features: American Cream Team, Big Bub, Kim Stephens, Method Man, Masta Killa

On Immobilarity album, Raekwon turned the tables on the traditional Wu-Tang approach and created a soundscape that was unmistakably Wu-like, yet had no direct influence from the group’s maestro, RZA. Instead, producers like American Cream Team and Infinite Arkatechz drove the sonic vision, recreating RZA’s paranoid synth-strings and soundtrack feel. While the execution was commendable, the album leaned heavily on Chef’s lyrical capabilities to fill the void. Standout tracks like “Sneakers,” produced by Pete Rock, were exceptions, but overall, the absence of RZA’s golden touch was evident, making it challenging for the Shaolin MC to replicate the brilliance of his first album, leading to one of the more disappointing rap releases.

The Lex Diamond Story

Released: December 16, 2003

Label: Universal

Singles: “Smith Bros.”, “The Hood”

Features: Polite, Havoc, Ghostface Killah, Fat Joe, Ice Water Inc., Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Cappadonna, Tiffany Villarreal, Capone, Sheek Louch, Ultra, Tekitha.

Returning to the gritty gangsta narrative of his debut album, Chef peppered this work with fresh elements that yielded generally impressive results. The album is an engaging gangsta drama with Lex Diamond, Raekwon’s alter ego, at its helm. Standouts include “Pit Bull Fights,” “All Over Again,” and “Once Upon a Time.” The absence of RZA is, once again, very noticeable, but the Wu rapper made commendable efforts to fill the gap with a vibrant array of underground talents. Though the album didn’t come close to reaching the lofty heights of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, it was a strong effort that showed Rae’s capability to deliver quality work independently.

Fly International Luxurious Art

Released: April 28, 2015

Label: Ice H2O, Caroline

Singles: “All About You”, “Soundboy Kill It”, “Wall to Wall”

Features: Ghostface Killah, A$AP Rocky, French Montana, Busta Rhymes, 2 Chainz, Snoop Dogg, Melanie Fiona, Assassin, Rick Ross, Estelle, Liz Rodrigues.

Released in 2015, Fly International Luxurious Art finds Raekwon revisiting his winning formula of mafioso rap with a jet-setter twist. At its core, the album is about the Wu rapper staying true to his lyrical roots but making adjustments to appeal to a broader audience. Featuring younger talent like A$AP Rocky and French Montana, as well as the always reliable Ghostface Killah, Fly International Luxurious Art offered gems such as “I Got Money” and “1,2 1,2” with a blend of bombastic yet gritty production. However, the endeavor to cater to mainstream tastes resulted in a few missteps, with tracks like “Soundboy Kill It” and “All About You” feeling out of place. Nonetheless, Fly International Luxurious Art demonstrated that Chef still knew how to balance the demands of stretching one’s artistry with the expectations of his core fan base.

Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang

Released: March 8, 2011

Label: Ice H2O, EMI

Singles: “Butter Knives”, “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang”, “Rock n Roll”

Features: Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Lloyd Banks, Method Man, Nas, and Rick Ross.

Raekwon’s fifth solo studio album, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, is an intriguing offering from the Wu veteran. Although not reaching the heights of its direct predecessor, the brilliant Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, the album still has enough signature Wu attributes to stand out from the crowd. His lyrical prowess persists, with impressive metaphoric agility and gritty narratives weaving through an onslaught of familiar kung-fu samples. The supporting acts, including Nas, Busta Rhymes, and Black Thought, add flavor to the mix, while the production—managed by industry heavyweights Erick Sermon, Mathematics, Scram Jones, and DJ Khalil—conveys a tasteful fusion of the old and new. Although Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang might not hold the same longevity as Raekwon’s earlier works, it remains an enjoyable, albeit less trailblazing, addition to the Chef’s discography.

The Wild

Released: March 24, 2017

Label: Ice H2O, Empire

Singles: N/A

Features: CeeLo Green, Lil Wayne, P.U.R.E, Andra Day, G-Eazy

The Wild stands as a testament to Raekwon’s enduring potency within the rap game. After a couple of lukewarm releases, this album sees him fully re-embracing his distinctive storytelling style, each track a novel in miniature. Intricate descriptions, streetwise poetry, and an unwavering grip on reality permeate the album, from the detail-laden “I Have Nothing” to the eerie narrative of “Marvin.” Unusually for Chef, The Wild carries few guest appearances — with no Wu members showing up — yet the limited collaborators add valuable contrasts to the mix. Although the production might lack the star-studded spectacle of his earlier works, its somber tones echo the classic Wu-Tang sound, adding an undercurrent of nostalgia. The triumph of The Wild is its sheer consistency and quality, further solidifying Raekwon’s position in the pantheon of rap legends.

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II

Released: September 8, 2009

Label: Ice H2O, EMI

Singles: “New Wu”, “House of Flying Daggers”, “Walk Wit Me”, “Have Mercy”, “Catalina”

Features: Popa Wu, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Suga Bang Bang, RZA, Tash Mahogany, Jadakiss, Styles P, Beanie Sigel, Blue Raspberry, Cappadonna, Lyfe Jennings, GZA, Masta Killa, Slick Rick, Busta Rhymes.

Taking its rightful place as one of Raekwon’s most accomplished works, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II picks up the mantle of its iconic predecessor with grandeur. Rae’s sharp rhymes, layered narratives, and compelling wordplay are all amplified here. The album’s superior quality is further reflected in the diverse list of contributors, with Ghostface, Inspectah Deck, and Method Man delivering noteworthy performances. With a production roster featuring names like Pete Rock, Alchemist, and Dr. Dre, the tracks come alive, echoing the distinct Wu-Tang sound. From the hard-hitting, Dilla-produced “House of Flying Daggers” to the touching tribute “Ason Jones,” Chef hits the mark on every track. It may not share the original’s conceptual framework, but Pt. II stands on its own, validating its place in Raekwon’s legacy.

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

Released: August 1, 1995

Label: Loud, RCA, BMG Records

Singles: “Heaven & Hell”, “Criminology”, “Ice Cream”, “Rainy Dayz”

Features: Ghostface Killah, U-God, Blue Raspberry, Inspectah Deck, GZA, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Nas, Method Man, RZA.

Regarded as one of the greatest pieces of work ever produced in hip hop history, Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” shines as an illustrative masterpiece of street rap. The album sees the Wu-Tang Clan’s wordsmith team up with Ghostface Killah, crafting an intricate soundscape of captivating narratives and potent lyricism. RZA’s production artistry is at its peak, weaving a rich tapestry of soul samples and resonant piano loops that complements the raw energy of the MCs. The skits add depth and context, each serving a purpose, and painting a vivid picture of street life. The album, known affectionately as The Purple Tape, remains an unshakeable cultural landmark, influencing subsequent generations of artists and solidifying Raekwon’s master-craft in the realm of hip-hop.