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Way back in 1995, before Jay-Z had the benefit of Reasonable Doubt or Nas wrote It Was Written, Raekwon the Chef was hiphop’s man of the moment. Dropping his debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, just 19 months after the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) put Staten Island on the musical map, Rae reassured heads everywhere of the nine-man collective’s collective worthiness as solo artists. More than Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version or Method Man’s Tical, even, Linx was a disc to be reckoned with: Backed by RZA’s dark, elliptical production and shored up by rock-solid work from partner in rhyme Ghostface Killah, Raekwon’s restlessly inventive, gangster-obsessed narratives practically defined an era in which New York MCs were eagerly attempting to snatch back mike supremacy from their West Coast counterparts.

To quote the late Notorious One, though, things done changed since 1995. Raekwon’s 1999 follow-up, Immobilarity, was pronounced dead on arrival. And even the Wu’s once-invincible closed ranks have shown some weakness of late (see 2001’s oxidized Wu-Tang Iron Flag). Plus, with the West Coast legions vanquished, New York’s microphone-movement soldiers have been left to squabble over the spoils of their own empire. Witness the verbal black-on-black violence that divided East Coast allegiances between 50 Cent and Ja Rule in 2003 and between Jay-Z and Nas the year before. It’s almost enough to leave a cat nostalgic for the good old days of Death Row. Enter Raekwon—older, stockier, four years past his previous solo release, and bearing a comeback attempt titled The Lex Diamond Story.

Even before you rip the cellophane off this one, you’re wise to the fact that Rae is still workin’ the Tony Montana angle. Though the Mafia reference is second only to the high-end liquor allusion as the genre’s reigning lyrical cliché, Lex has had heads anticipating that rarest of artistic offerings: the successful hiphop concept album. And given the fact that Raekwon’s primary gifts as an MC—beyond his tangled, off-kilter flow—are his cinematic storytelling and his ability to conjure damn-near three-dimensional images, he would seem to stand a better chance than most of pulling it off. The concept behind this one? What else but the epic rise and fall of Rae’s fictional alter ego and Shaolin thug supreme, Lexus Diamond?

In his prime, Rae would probably have constructed an audio equivalent to Scarface, a violent and vivid cautionary tale for the hustler aspirant. This time out, he delivers an uneven and thematically frustrating B-movie. The cat can still run down a labyrinth of rhyming syllables with flawless breath control. And multilayered allusions and Hitchcockesque storytelling remain hallmarks of his brand of microphonism. Still, you’ll walk away from these 20 tracks with the suspicion that there is more album than concept happening here.

Not that that’s always a bad thing: Too many overblown hiphop discs sacrifice sound to single-minded pursuit of the Idea. Though it’s true that Wu-Tang’s chief sound architect is entirely absent from Lex, for the most part, the outsourced, RZA-less production work here does what it should: provide a sound framework for Rae’s verbal gymnastics. On “Pit Bull Fights,” the lyricist shows flashes of his 1995 form, dropping lines over Mizza’s insistent, guitar-laced backdrop: “Young gangstas chase sneakers and snubs, and yo/Elevator’s broken, pissy stairwells and shells/Old men gossip with tales, you know?/…I see firemen, ambulances, narcotic mansions.” And “Missing Watch” shows why Raekwon was once ranked in the top tier of East Coast MCs. Fueled by an off-kilter five-note guitar line, Rae and his boy Ghostface spin a twisted tale of gangsterism, narrating Lex Diamond’s destruction of a night spot where he lost his watch: “Yo, I’m tired and stressed, hungry and I’m vexed/And I’m flippin ’cause these niggas wanna play me for test/Shit fell off ya hand, Lord? Stop it, I’m eyein’ niggas in they faces/ After that I’m goin’ at niggas’ pockets.” This is the type of cut that leaves you wondering whether HBO has optioned the story rights yet.

But that gem is followed by the forgettable “Robbery,” on which Rae’s protégés in Ice Water Inc. send uninspired threats over a descending keybs loop. The lackluster “Musketeers of Pig Alley,” featuring Wu alumni Masta Killa and Inspector Deck doing their best with a bland, cymbal-laced drum track, is little better. Ditto for “Ice Cream Pt. 2,” a saccharine ode to the opposite sex that hardly belongs on the musical epitaph for a departed hustler. Add “Planet of the Apes,” a subtlety-free four-way pissing contest featuring Sheek Louch from the LOX (“Heavy gunplay, cock back, niggas is screwed/Stomach wounds make it hard for ya to swallow ya food”), Capone (“A toast to the death of my foes, respect violence, the criminal codes/Hammer-smack a nigga out his five senses”), and Polite (“My niggas kill you, nigga”), and you have the makings of a fairly mediocre release.

The irony here is that the Chef is at the top of his game throughout, delivering rhymes as good as any he’s cooked up in the past (not to mention a ridiculous skit about a disloyal soldier being fed to his pet monkeys). What damns Lex Diamond to burial in the remainder bin is the roster of guest MCs, most of whom aren’t on par with Lex’s star and none of whom take the album’s theme to heart. Rae is reduced to jumping in between guest spots to drop the odd song about Lex and a world inhabited by stone-souled street denizens and slum captains. By the time our boy offers up the R&B-suffused “Once Upon a Time,” the tale of the hustler’s final undoing, all we can do is ask, Dawg, what exactly is Lex Diamond’s story, anyway? CP