So influential that to dub them as “pioneers” would be an exercise in gratuity, Eric B. & Rakim wrote the book that Hip Hop would plagiarize from for the succeeding 30 years, leaving their mark on every movement and LP to follow reverently in their footsteps. Abandoning the plainly direct nature of rap’s infancy in favor of lyrical intricacy and an expanded palate of musical influences, Paid in Full was dissonant and remote, dabbling in synthesized atmospheres and a bottomless well of echo effect. It was a sound on the outer limits of popular music, but its loquacious mouthpiece was the real extraordinary element, packing each of his verses with enough ingenious wordplay and cocksure pomp to write the epitaph on non-technical rhyming and bland universality.
William Griffin’s rhymes are all flex, constructed from the egotistical hubris of a 19-year old gifted with boundless confidence and a preternatural talent for narrative eloquence. Free of comedic sensibility and inhibition, Rakim’s content is personal and compelling, giving a director’s commentary into the construction of his vivid word portraits with the specificity of a mathematician. He prefers a slow beat, matching the tempered and intentional nature of his flow, which happens to be both crystal clear and fatherly in its sternness. Employing internal rhyme and a precocious fascination with polysyllabic words, Rakim navigates his unbroken stream of phrases without ever slipping into predictability, pausing only for effect or to briefly suck in oxygen. It’s a vocal force with maximum kinetic energy, spewing one-liners out at break-neck speed without sacrificing narrative drive. Though he rarely waxes philosophical, even the most passive listen reveals an obsessed student, certain only of his ability as a vocalist and the odious nature of his musical opponents. It’s a distrustful and detached nature that marries perfectly to the tense electronics of his backing music.
Self-produced, with a helping hand lent by Marley Marl, Paid in Full is a study in repetition, building propulsive bits of future-funk from robotic drum loops, a mountain of horn breaks and agile record scratching. Steady and hollow, stressing silence as much as sonic clutter, each track is as herky-jerky as public transit, endlessly alternating between sparse minimalism and hyperactive soul. Eric B.’s cuts are acute and overstated, counteracting the numbing synthesizer whirr with ascending volume and rapidity. Bass lines are elastic and distorted, contrasting the gentle pluck of guitar or intermittent flute quiver, nuanced enough to make each element distinct without ungainly disconnect.
Exploiting this quiet/loud dynamic, “My Melody” is an echoey slab of moon rock, alien in its isolated drum kick and squealed passages of turntable desecration. Gone is Hip Hop as communal party starter, repackaged as desolate sonic landscape, tailored to fit Rakim’s singular, stoic personality through vast, open spaces and a bed of sinister synthesizer. This anti-social bill of fare both sets a tone and delicately inserts a symbol, separating Rakim from the crowd and the beat, laying his vocals atop the mix and, figuratively, above the genre. The allowance for negative space and hypnotic recurrence also emphasize the rhythmic nuances of Rakim’s crisp vocal flow, somehow “rugged” and “sharp,” at home in the most aggressive prose or delicately articulated poetry.
For all its high-minded complexity and outsider posturing, the individual pieces of Paid in Full weren’t foreign enough to avoid duplication, making Eric B.’s speaker-blowing scratch tactics and Rakim’s bombastic rhyme schemes as customary as two turntables and a microphone. Yet, no tribute ever matched Paid in Full‘s sense of balance, an uncanny and artful ability to waver between the subtle and the forthright without fatigue or tedium.