After releasing two both critically and commercially acclaimed albums Raekwon is back on top of the game. Maybe not as high on top as a Weezy or a Khalifa, but the Chef was never a pop rapper anyway, and those that pay attention now know his sword is as sharp as when he was a young Shaolin soldier. The victory might be unexpected for some, but does his latest tape, a gift to his fans, continue the winning streak?
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‘Unexpected Victory’ opens with an instrumental intro that sets the tone for some Gambino tales. Rae quickly follows with a toast and is joined by protege JD Era, the first of many of his features to come. The feeling of hard-won succes permeats the strong opener, but the tone it sets is immediately crushed under the heels of ‘The Brewery,’ a song title that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on ‘Wu-Tang Forever,’ but it’s drums severely lacking in punch would have. Producer Scram Jones seems to have had an off-day with this one. Featuring Ceazar-n-Reason, another act on Rae’s Ice H2o independent label, it introduces us to more of his team but they fail to make a lasting impression besides their capo on an already dissapointing cut.
The Ice H2o boys do leave a strong impression on ‘Goodfellas’ as JD Era and Camouflage admirably take stabs at a cinematic beat in tandem with their boss, as if refusing to be merely incidental weedholders next to a veteran. With their position justified, Rae even shares the limelight with emcees out of his direct sphere on the smooth ‘Silk’ with an unexpectedly resurfaced Sauce Money and a solid verse by CL Smooth. Mobb Deep join the proceedings on ‘Chinese Marines,’ a dreamed combo that has been succesfull several times in the past. Alas, despite decent vocal performances by all parties concerned, the tinny production doesn’t come close to matching the gravel needed to provide solid ground for these cats to stomp on. Luckily, the pace is picked up by the LEP Bogus Boys, who drop an effective guest appearance and make the crack rap of ‘This Shit Hard’ live up to it’s name.
‘Mtv Cribs’ manages to take the tired flossing cliche and tackiness of the show of the same name to a surprising level of fun, as Rae along with frequent collaborator Busta Rhymes proves there is no concept worn out enough that it can’t still sound good, when done right. Another standout cut follows in ‘Chupacabra,’ where Noreaga manages to get away with rhyming “Taliban, Afghanistan, Pakistan” by sheer force of his performance and chemistry with both Capone and Raekwon, as the veteran Ice H2o signees go back and forth trading lines with their new label boss like a grimey Queens/Shaolin rendition of the Beastie Boys. The good times are unfortunately stopped in an ugly way when a radio skit pops up where someone calls in to request a song by Altrina Renne, the r&b songstress on Rae’s label. Of course the following ‘Facetime’ can’t live up to the precedent set by the classic ‘Protect Ya Neck,’ which was introduced by a similar skit, but completely disrupting the atmosphere and flow of the project is a whole other thing, and subsequently earns the track nothing but skippage.
Thankfully, one of the highlights is at the end with ‘Gangsta Cazals,’ a joint where Statik Selektah succesfully does his best Wu impression with a chopped horn sample, Styles P drops a gruff verse and Raekwon threats to “wash ya mouth out with shells” and amusingly likens himself an “ice water billy goat.”
What becomes clear with ‘Unexpected Victory’ is that Raekwon is smartly using his rekindled fame and critical praise to launch the next step in his career. Proper billing for the tape would’ve been ‘Raekwon Presents Ice H2o – Unexpected Victory,’ or something to that effect, as this is slyly used as the launching pad for more. Unfortunately, some artists on the label are not of the same caliber as the guests on previous Raekwon projects. JD Era and Camouflage manage to impressively hold their head high among veterans but their own voice and style isn’t fully present yet, not like it is with Trife Da God for instance, an artist who’s in a similair role in Ghost’s Theodore Unit, and Altrina Renee’s contribution could’ve been missed altogether.
The overall production value, though understandable for a freebie, further renders the project a bit of a tough listen as a whole, with volumes between songs varying wildly, occassionally uneventful production and bad mixing (like the fade on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Chupacabra’ which sets in too late and is only halfway before being cut off). It makes ‘Unexpected Victory’ sound sloppy in places, which is a shame when the lyrical talent is obviously still there. The Chef fits into his new role as wisened capo like a glove and manages to underscore it deftly with flourishes of the hunger of his younger self. Tracks like ‘A Pinebox Story,’ a succinct, vintage Raekwon storytelling joint over chopped vocals, buried between larger songs early on, proves he hasn’t lost a step and could’ve easily fit in with any of his previous two albums.
It’s somewhat emblematic for ‘Unexpected Victory,’ which certainly has its gems, but you do have to dig for them.