Very few rappers can claim superiority over other artists with complete conviction. Especially now, styles are too diverse and incomparable to justify the thought of ranking artists top to bottom. There are definitely a few artists who have claimed their stake in the community and can and have discussed via rhyme, their musical prowess. Usually, these artists have pioneered a style and have served as mentor to an ever increasing number of pupils. A perfect example of this is Rakim. Ever since his coming together with Eric B, he has consistently broken new ground. Lyrically, he set the precedent for most artists rapping today. His first solo album, The 18th Letter was a declaration of his ability.
Hip hop has evolved into a verbal art, words mean power. This album was the surfacing of a new Rakim. He was sharper, edgier, and his style was almost a complete 180 from his old school 80’s roots. It went from poppy and bouncy to hard and impactful. Rakim sounds hard-headed and arrogant, but he is confident enough to make it work long enough until we agree with him; which isn’t very long. The opening track, which is also the title track has such multi-syllabic rhymes as “mathematics” and “asiatics”. He weaves intergalactic lines about Saturn together with bars about his deep knowledge of Egyptian culture. You are left in wonderment as you try to keep up all while actually comprehending his words.
Rakim is undoubtedly concerned with asserting dominance over others in his class. He talks about the spots he would rock mics at growing up and the fact that very few were skilled enough to do so. When he’s not reminiscing about growing up he’s reminding you that he’s back and he going to make sure he is conveniently located in your list of top emcees. By the time we start hearing more conceptually themed songs like, ‘Stay A While’ or ‘New York (Ya Out There)’ we are already more than halfway through the album. His free-verse style throughout the first half of the album allows him to exercise your mind and his vocabulary but it does start to get tedious. Luckily, this is the point when he ventures into more focused songs about love, god or his hometown of New York.
The album’s prowess isn’t established by Rakim alone, while it technically has no features it does feature the assistance of veteran producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier. Fat basslines, drums and expert scratches are the sound make-up of the album. It is simple and that is exactly how it should be. Rakim is like a delicacy, or your favorite button-up shirt; he is for specific occasions. This album is something you can listen to all the time or in any mood. It is something you listen through, then maybe run through a specific track or two once more to relish in the lyrical adeptness and then put it down for a while as it lingers in your mind. He is the kind of artist you can be proud of when telling your friends that you know who he is. His flow is organic and liquid. It is particularly effective when he is discussing all the ways he can tear apart an instrumental. His deep voice has as much right to be called an instrument as any other part of the song. It works in tandem with the bass knocks rather than independent of them and the results are pure synchronicity. The final product is one of the earliest examples of lyrics and rhythm on this high of a level. Even amidst the come-up of rappers like Nas, The Wu-tang Clan and Jay-Z no one could match the style or technique of the great Rakim and this album is his crowning jewel.