Lyrical Luminary is an essay series analyzing the artistry of legendary and underappreciated MCs in the history of Hip Hop.
What does it mean to be exceptional? Well, the Cambridge Dictionary defines the adjective this way: much greater than usual, especially in skill, intelligence, and quality.
Every Lyrical Luminary is exceptional in some way, but Rakim fully embodies the attribute — each part of the word’s meaning — in spectacular fashion. Rakim’s ‘exception’ for rhyming is greater than the usual and unusual — his lyricism is a gift that hip-hop should always cherish as if the state of the culture depended on it.
While I admit the above sentence has the tone of hyperbole, I won’t diminish (not even a little) the high degree of importance Rakim’s lyricism has been in the elevation of Hip Hop.
Great MCs are self-made but a gifted MC is ‘called’ into existence. Rakim dutifully answered the call — and once he debuted his rhymes on “Eric B. Is President”, the whole world was instantaneously ‘blessed’ by the words of ‘The God’.
“Eric B. Is President” put the rap game on notice.
While not a general consensus, many boxing writers, fans, and serious aficionados of the pugilist sport, consider Muhammad Ali to be the greatest boxer of all time — the GOAT. He was at the tail end of his career by the time I was born in ‘77, therefore, I don’t recall seeing any of his last fights live on television as they happened, still, I have always admired ‘The Greatest’. Not only do I consider Ali to be the greatest boxer of all time — he’s the greatest professional athlete of all time, in my humble opinion, because of his supreme confidence and performance; the uncompromising way he carried himself in-and-out of the ring.
With that said, in December of 1981, Ali — at almost 40 years old — was far past his prime when he traveled to the Bahamas; not to enjoy a nice vacation on an island paradise, but to face off in the boxing ring with a son of the Caribbean, Jamaican-born fighter, Trevor Berbick.
Ali took a beating in the ring a little over a year before the Berbick fight, by his friend, then-WBC Heavyweight Champion, Larry Holmes. It was clear to most spectators then, that Ali was done. The deterioration of Ali’s neurological state was quite evident. But I suppose, like all great fighters, Ali was convinced he had one more last great fight in him.
Sadly, ‘The Greatest’ was wrong.
The fight, billed, “Drama In Bahama”, was a mix-match from the start. Trevor Berbick was 12 years younger than a slow and gradually deteriorating Ali when they squared off in the ring. Yes, the fight went the distance but Berbick won by unanimous decision. It wasn’t that Berbick was such a great fighter — he would have NEVER gotten close to beating Ali in his prime. But by 1981, Muhammad Ali was simply finished. His career was over — everyone knew it but him.
Fast forward, five years later, November 1986, just days before Thanksgiving, Trevor Berbick truly had a lot to be thankful for. After all, earlier that year he beat Pinklon Thomas by unanimous decision to win the WBC Heavyweight title. He was the Champ! Unfortunately for him, his first title defense would not be against an ‘all-time great whose best days were far behind him’ fighter, as Muhammad Ali was in the Drama In Bahama.
No — Berbick (now, 32-years old) would have to go toe-to-toe with a young man who was quickly becoming the most feared fighter in boxing; The baddest man on the planet — Michael Gerard Tyson, better known as, “Iron” Mike Tyson.
Thankfulness turned to pity about 25 seconds into the second round.
Tyson dominated the fight from the opening bell — he knocked Berbick down twice, once in the first and then ended the bout shortly after the start of the second. Berbick tried to get up from that second knockdown, twice, but each time he attempted to stand, he dropped to the canvas.
On November 22, 1986, Mike Tyson, at the age of 20 years old, became the youngest boxer to win the heavyweight title. The fight was billed, “Judgment Day”.
“Eric B. Is President”
With all of the talent coming out of New York City boroughs — Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan — who would have thought that one of the greatest MCs to have ever written a rhyme would be ‘straight outta’ Wyandanch (Long Island)?
Hip Hop was less than 10 years old when Eric B. & Rakim came onto the scene in 1986. But, in a way, the duo’s arrival sort of felt like ‘Judgment Day’ for the rap game.
Rakim has always been well-deserving of the nickname, ‘The God MC’ not just due to his devoted study of Five-Percent theology (more on that later), but because he’s simply supreme as a lyricist. His rhymes are pure; of the highest quality that an MC can possibly design. And this was quite evident when he and his stone-faced DJ dropped “Eric B. Is President”.
Though the song is an ode to Eric B. (records celebrating the DJ was standard in those early years of Hip Hop), Rakim’s lyrical skills on the record hits you immediately — like a Mike Tyson blow to the body within seconds of the opening bell. Listeners could just sense that there’s something special about Rakim. And I get the feeling other MCs could sense it as well.
There were already several great MCs in the rap game before “Eric B. Is President” dropped; disproportionately so. In other words, the Golden Age Era produced more good-to-great MCs than average-to-wack ones, at least in my opinion. Hearing an incredible rhyme by a bona fide MC was always anticipated, but not new.
Competition to deliver the hottest bars, verses or entire songs was par for the course during Hip Hop’s Golden Age. But something different was happening when Rakim was on the mic. An experience unlike no other was being had by all listeners when this brother rhymed. Rakim was taking Hip Hop to what was then an unimaginable altitude on “Eric B. Is President”
Check out the entire first verse.
“I came in the door/I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more/But it’s biting me, fighting me, inviting me to rhyme/I can’t hold it back, I’m looking for the line/Taking off my coat/Clearing my throat/The rhyme will be kicking until I hit my last note/My mind remains refined, all kind of ideas/Self-esteem makes it seem like a thought took years to build/But still say a rhyme after the next one/Prepared, never scared, I’ll just bless one/And you know that I’m the soloist/So Eric B. make ’em clap to this” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim’s rhymes sound impressively polished considering that “Eric B. Is President” was the duo’s first record. Rakim rhymes with ‘controlled confidence’ on the record, a quality he would superbly utilize throughout his career.
Far too many MCs rhyme with ‘reckless confidence’ (more commonly referred to as ‘arrogance’) — regardless of their swagger, listeners can still sense that they’re really unsure of themselves. Too many MCs rhyme in a trembling tone that makes listeners feel as if a decent-sounding verse might take a turn for the worse at any moment.
Rakim, on the other hand, rhymes with stability and clarity; he doesn’t sound rushed or overly anxious to ‘show and prove’. On “Eric B Is President”, ‘The God MC’ does what it clearly sounds like he was born to do.
Check out most of the song’s second verse.
“I don’t bug out or chill or be acting ill/No tricks in ’86, it’s time to build/Eric be easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed/’Cause to me, MC means: Move the Crowd/I made it easy to dance to this/But can you detect what’s coming next from the flex of the wrist?/Say indeed and I’ll proceed ’cause my man made a mix/If he bleed he won’t need no band-aid to fix/His fingertips sew a rhyme until there’s no rhymes left/I hurry up because the cut will make ’em bleed to death” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim’s metaphorical rhymes about Eric B.’s deejaying skills are brilliant, but it’s one of the simpler lines from the verse I like best…
“Eric be easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed/’Cause to me, MC means: Move the Crowd…”
MCs of Rakim’s era could certainly move the crowd with remarkable displays of (largely) party/battle rhymes. But as a ‘rookie’, Rakim showed the rap game that he had the ability to get the crowd to move on a different and higher level; physically and mentally.
A scene study is a teaching method used to help actors hone their skills. A dramatic scene from a movie or even a live performance is shown to actors and actresses, partly for instruction and partly for inspiration. Of course, the best of a scene study features premiere performers. If you want to be the best, you should learn from the best. I think “Eric B. Is President” is the perfect scene study for MCs of all levels to go through, over-and-over like a fine-tooth comb.
Hip Hop was in an exciting place in 1986–87. The culture was teeming with talented MCs, each with their own voice, but, together — they made the culture a magnetic force during the Golden Age Era.
But there was an unavoidable reality even the most respected MCs had to acknowledge: Just as ‘Iron Mike’ was to the world of boxing when he defeated Trever Berbick to become the heavyweight champion of the world in 86, — once “Eric B. Is President” dropped, Rakim became the most feared MC in the rap game.
The album that established Rakim as a certified gifted MC: Paid In Full (1987)
For many are called, but few are chosen -Matthew 22:14
Even though I grew up in a fairly quiet D.C. suburb, I was totally immersed in hip-hop culture. I was fascinated by every element; but emceeing has always been my favorite. I used to write rhymes and thought I was good enough to be an MC (but that’s a personal story I won’t make you sit through).
Like many black kids, my family was very much entrenched in the black church. Beliefs are wide-ranging, depending on which denomination you’re a part of, but most tenets in the black church overlap, regardless of the denomination.
One particularly strong belief (based on biblical scripture) is that ‘divine’ gifts are given to certain people directly from God — and it’s God who ‘calls’ certain people to fulfill certain purposes.
Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy…
– I Timothy 4:14
For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.
I believe that God blesses a selected few with divine gifts. Yes, it’s a belief that’s firmly rooted in my religious upbringing but I’ve seen and heard manifestations of this belief in people who would be considered far removed from the black church.
I used to sit in church all day on Sunday when I was a kid, listening to sermons from my pastor that typically lasted for a couple of hours! And I can make the following statement definitively without reservation: insight I’ve heard in the wordplay of the most gifted MCs are akin to ‘the word of God’ church folks might hear from an anointed minister on a Sunday morning.
And I don’t know if there has ever been a more gifted MC than Rakim.
Paid In Full is one of the most celebrated albums in the history of Hip Hop. And it should be. The album just about single-handedly raised the lyrical bar in Hip Hop. Personally, I felt like Rakim immediately separated himself from just about every MC once Paid In Full dropped, right out of the starting block. MCs who thought they were comfortably ahead in the game suddenly realized that they had a lot of ground to cover for fear of getting lapped, now that Rakim had entered the rap race.
Paid In Full dropped in ’87 just days after Independence Day. You can certainly make a strong argument that it was the best rap album released that year. It was the most cherished gift a Hip Hop fan could have received. In ’87 — Christmas came early — in the hot and humid month of July.
“Eric B. Is President” was the debut single from this classic album. But it’s absolutely time to jump into some of the other greatest lyrical moments on the album.
“I Ain’t No Joke”
Now, I have to be honest: Yes, I was just a kid, living several hours from the Hip Hop mecca (NYC, of course), therefore, I wasn’t the most informed and experienced listener — nevertheless, Rakim’s delivery on “I Ain’t No Joke” was the best lyrical performance my young ears had ever heard when it dropped in the summer of ‘87.
“I ain’t no joke/I used to let the mic smoke/Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke/When I’m gone, no one gets on, ’cause I won’t let/Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set/I like to stand in a crowd and watch the people wonder, damn/But think about it then you’ll understand/I’m just an addict, addicted to music/Maybe it’s a habit, I gotta use it…
…Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up, convert it into hip-hop form/Write a rhyme in graffiti, in/every show you see me in/Deep concentration/Cause I’m no comedian/Jokers are wild if you wanna be tame/I treat you like a child then you’re gonna be named/Another enemy, not even a friend of me/’Cause you’ll get fried in the end when you pretend to be…” Source: Rap Genius
If you haven’t heard this song in a while; and especially if you’ve never heard this song before — listen to it NOW. That’s right — stop reading this piece and listen to “I Ain’t No Joke” (kindly, come back though). Lyrically, the quality of this record is as good as it gets regardless of the era.
“I Know You Got Soul”
This record (along with “Move The Crowd”) demonstrates why funk-based samples + pure lyricism is such a formidable combination in Hip Hop. Rakim pulled off such a stunning rise in the rap game with the release of the Paid In Full album, largely because of the authenticity he displayed in his lyricism with soulful funk samples as the soundtrack.
“It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you/Without a strong rhyme to step to/Think of how many weak shows you slept through/Time’s up, I’m sorry I kept you/Thinking of this/You keep repeating, you miss/The rhymes from the microphone soloist/So you sit by the radio, hand on the dial, soon/As you hear it, pump up the volume” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim knew that Hip Hop was best digested through live performance. He and Eric B. (with mixing expertise from Marley Marl) were able to give listeners a sense of that experience on wax. But Rakim didn’t need to lead back-and-forth chants with the crowd — he was blessed with the ability to captivate the crowd by relying on his exceptional lyricism.
“Move The Crowd”
I wrote earlier about Rakim’s ‘controlled confidence’ — well, he displays this trait with masterful precision on “Move The Crowd”. The lyrics to this song strongly reveal Rakim’s mindset when it comes to ‘crowd control’. For him, as a supreme lyricist, it’s not about just moving bodies to the beat — it’s critical to move minds at the same time. Through his lyrics, ‘The God MC’ literally explains — in detail — this process; from the initial conception of a rhyme to the finished live performance perfectly displayed in front of a captivated crowd.
“Standing by the speaker, suddenly I had this/Fever/Was it me or either summer madness/’Cause I just can’t stand around/So I get closer and the closer I get, the better it sound/My mind starts to activate/Rhymes collaborate/’Cause when I heard the beat I just had to make/Something from the top of my head/So I fell into the groove of the wax and I said…
…How could I move the crowd?/First of all, ain’t no mistakes allowed/Here’s the instruction, put it together/It’s simple ain’t it, but quite clever/Some of you’ve been trying to write rhymes for years/But weak ideas irritate my ears..” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim has the canny ability of constructing rhymes that make you think while moving (or move while thinking). He was not necessarily the first MC to have this skill and he wouldn’t be the last. But you can argue — he’s the best at demonstrating this unique weapon in the lyricist’s arsenal.
“Imagine me with the heat that’s made by solar/It gets stronger every time I hold ah/Microphone, check the tone to get started/The line for the microphone is departed/So leave it up to me, my DJ is mixing/Everyone is moving, but eager to listen…”
The term ‘MC’ is such a perfect fit for Rakim; he seems to have an almost divine understanding of what’s required to completely seize the attention of an audience — using entrancing beats and compelling rhymes.
Before I move on to the next record, I have to share the last few bars from “Move The Crowd”
“All praises due to Allah and that’s a blessing/With knowledge of self, there’s nothing I can’t solve/At 360 degrees I revolve/This is actual fact, it’s not an act, it’s been proven/Indeed and I proceed to make the crowd keep moving…”
Rakim is a vocal Five Percenter — the theology of the NYC-based Five Percent Nation has greatly influenced Hip Hop, particularly, during the culture’s first couple of decades. Quite a few MCs — including Lyrical Luminaries — proudly espouse Five Percent principles in their lyrics. But there’s not a more skillful oratorical proponent of Five Percenters’ belief system than Rakim.
On “Move The Crowd”, ‘The God MC’ gave you insight into his theological foundation while you moved your body and bobbed your head — sounds like a musical ministry sure to convert non-believers…
Rakim shows remarkable lyrical fluency on “My Melody”. The song consists of five rhyme-heavy verses that allow Rakim to show the breadth of his wordplay and the potency of his delivery. It’s a solid performance all the way through, but the standout lyric in the song is undisputed.
“I take 7 emcees, put ’em in a line/And add 7 more brothers who think they can rhyme/Well, it’ll take 7 more before I go for mine/Now, that’s 21 emcees ate up at the same time…” Source: Rap Genius
I’ve heard too-many-to-count bars, verses, and songs in my lifetime. But I have to say: These bars from ‘The God MC’ are easily in my top 5 of the best (and cleverest) rhymes I’ve ever consumed.
“Paid In Full”
Out of all of the songs in Eric B. & Rakim’s musical menu, their debut album’s title track is definitely the duo’s signature dish. It might be the first song I heard by the duo when I was a kid. The not-so ‘secret sauce’ of the record was Rakim’s controlled confidence; his display of pure lyrical brilliance, done with ease.
As celebrated as “Paid In Full” is — I feel like it doesn’t receive its full recognition in terms of its impact on Hip Hop. It could be argued, the song is one of Hip Hop’s first gangsta records. ‘Gangsta’ is a vibe, driven by an unrelenting mindset, at least, that’s the way I see it. The oversaturated subgenre of rap is too often debased through the use of rudimentary rhymes detailing cartoonish violence and ‘thug love’ sex-capades that only happen in wet dreams.
In “Paid In Full”, Rakim gives a much more thoughtful reflection on street life like an experienced seasoned hustler. His flow, delivery, and insight have Rakim sounding far wiser beyond his years at the time of the song’s release.
The song is pure poetic — and starts out with what is arguably the best intro in the history of Hip Hop. Here is the song’s sole verse in its entirety.
“Thinkin’ of a master plan/’Cause ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand/So I dig into my pocket, all my money spent/So I dig deeper, but still coming up with lint/So I, start my mission, leave my residence/Thinking, “How could I get some dead presidents?”/I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid/So I think of all the devious things I did/I used to roll up: “This is a hold-up, ain’t nothing funny/Stop smiling, be still, don’t nothing move but the money…
…But now, I learned to earn ’cause I’m righteous/I feel great, so maybe, I might just/Search for a 9 to 5, if I strive/Then maybe I’ll stay alive/So I walk up the street, whistling this/Feeling out of place, ’cause man, do I miss/A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of/Me and Eric B and a nice big plate of/Fish, which is my favorite dish/But without no money, it’s still a wish/Cause I don’t like to dream about getting paid/So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made/So now’s a test to see if I got pull/Hit the studio, ’cause I’m paid in full…” Source: Rap Genius
In similar fashion to “Eric B. Is President”, “Paid In Full” was a game-changer for Hip Hop. With just one verse, Rakim continued to strongly challenge Hip Hop (and himself) lyrically.
Paid In Full (the album) set a definitive tone in Hip Hop. After its release, MCs could no longer get by with a few standout verses or a ‘hot’ song — or two. Eric B. & Rakim put together a certified classic with the release of Paid In Full. The album’s success was largely driven by the ‘lyrical clinic’ the surgical MC gave his competitors— and the fans.
Rakim proved that he was not just another star in hip-hop — he was like the sun. Because Rakim’s lyrical gift made him so close and so connected to the streets — in the ensuing years after the release of Paid In Full, ‘The God MC’ would arguably become the biggest and brightest star during rap’s Golden Age.
The period when Rakim was at the very top of his game: Follow The Leader (1988) and Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em (1990).
After winning the heavyweight title in ’86, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson dominated all contenders over a 3-year period. His tremendous power and peek-a-boo style made him the most dangerous boxer in the heavyweight division — and, essentially, all of boxing. At Tyson’s peak, it was a miracle if any of his opponents escaped getting knocked out in the first round — that’s how dominant he was.
Rakim’s dominance was not as aggressive; he instilled fear through subdued superiority. But there are some similarities between Tyson’s reign over boxing and Rakim’s takeover in Hip Hop.
Mike Tyson has made several unforgettable (and quite colorful) quotes throughout his career. My favorite one is when he said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!” It’s an amusing yet true statement not only about the sport of boxing but a fitting metaphor about the adversities people face in the game of life.
Well, Hip Hop’s soundtrack — rap music — is not your conventional genre. Rap music is combative by nature, like boxing. MCs who dared to go up against Rakim were undoubtedly punching far above their weight. Many contenders had tough exteriors but Rakim’s blows exposed their glass jaws.
Rakim is technically sound as a lyrical prizefighter. He firmly established deft skill at throwing ‘lyrical’ jabs, hooks, and uppercuts at his opponents. He could knock out an opponent with an array of well-crafted combinations or put a ‘Sucker MC’ flat on his back with just a single blow.
And just as Tyson was feared before he even stepped into the ring (which strongly factored into why most of his matches didn’t last long), similarly, Rakim was feared lyrically — he disposed of most contenders in the opening bars of his songs’ first verses.
MCs’ arms were just way too short to box with ‘The God MC’.
Rakim utilized his ‘ace in the hole’ — superior lyricism — when he and Eric B. released their second studio album, Follow The Leader, in 1988. Rakim had already established himself in Hip Hop as the strong and steady leader of lyricism, therefore, he wisely played to his strengths on Follow The Leader.
Every MC with a strong debut album becomes seized with anxiousness over the release of their second project, after all, the sophomore jinx is real! It would be impossible for me to tap into what Rakim’s mindset was at the time of Follow The Leader’s release. But just one listen of the album sends the clear message of the scope of Rakim’s supreme confidence.
Why don’t we just jump right into some of the album’s brightest highlights?
“Follow The Leader”
This is one of my favorite Eric B. & Rakim songs. The single’s beat and rhymes (and music video) represent authentic Hip Hop. The track is perfect for Rakim’s authoritative lyrics. But Rakim didn’t depend too heavily on the beat as most MCs do. Unquestionably, Rakim’s lyrics are the main course of this musical meal.
If Rakim teaches a masterclass, Follow The Leader would be a textbook case on lyricism and the album’s title track would be its most studied chapter.
“Follow me into a solo, get in the flow/And you can picture like a photo/Music mix, mellow maintains to make/Melodies for emcees, motivates the breaks/I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave, deep as x-rays/I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it — now it’s a daily word/I can get iller than ‘Nam/I kill and bomb/But no alarm — Rakim’ll remain calm/Self-esteem makes me super, superb and supreme/But for a microphone, still I fiend…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim is easily one of the most quotable MCs in the history of Hip Hop. The ‘7 MCs’ lines from “My Melody” is a great example of this. And these lines from “Follow The Leader” is most definitely an all-time quotable from the lyrical files of Rakim, which is why I have to post them again…
“I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days/With rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays/I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it — now it’s a daily word…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim gave what I thought was the best lyrical performance I had ever heard when he and Eric B. dropped “I Ain’t No Joke” — but then “Follow The Leader” was released. After just one listen, I personally felt like that song had earned lyrical supremacy status. It’s worth mentioning how “Follow The Leader” laid out with vivid detail, Rakim’s strong grasp of Five Percent theology. ‘The God MC’ exemplifies what it means to ‘drop science’ on street-studious fans.
I refer to “Microphone Fiend”, as “Move The Crowd” — 2.0. The song is a continuation of Rakim’s demonstration of the fine art of emceeing. He reveals what distinctively separates him from other lyricists on the record. The sampled beat is quite magnetic by itself, but when Rakim comes in with his lyrics — at the perfect pitch and tone — ‘The God MC’ leads listeners on a spiritual-like experience resembling the sway of a phenomenal preacher, backed up by the majestic sound of the church organ.
I think I want to share lyrics from this record in a few parts.
“I was a fiend/Before I became a teen/I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream/Music-orientated/So when hip-hop was originated/Fitted like pieces of puzzles, complicated…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim lyrically illustrates why he’s a ‘God’ on the microphone and even tells listeners when (“Before I became a teen..) the early stages of his development occurred. His genius is in his ability to convey mesmerizing messages through metaphors and vivid lyrical imagery. Rakim’s lyricism is simplistic and “complicated” — in the most effective way — at the same time. That’s what makes his rhyme display so appealing to a variety of ears.
“I get a craving like I fiend for nicotine/But I don’t need a cigarette, know what I mean?/I’m raging, ripping up the stage and/Don’t it sound amazing/Cause every rhyme is made and/Thought of, ’cause it’s sort of/An addiction/Magnetized — by the mixing/Vocals, vocabulary, your verses, you’re stuck in/The mic is a Drano/Volcanoes erupting/Rhymes overflowing, gradually growing…” Source: Rap Genius
More metaphors and vivid imagery abound in these bars. Rakim rhymes about being “magnetized” — that’s certainly how one feels when listening to his incredible display of rhyme gymnastics. Listeners were simply in awe as Rakim showed immense lyrical strength on “Microphone Fiend”, like an Olympic gold medalist gymnast swinging effortlessly on the rings.
“The prescription is a hypertone that’s thorough when/I fiend for a microphone, like heroin/Soon as the bass kicks, I need a fix/Gimme a stage and a mic and a mix/And I’ll put you in a mood, or is it a state of/Unawareness, beware/It’s the re-animator/A menace to a microphone, a lethal weapon/An assassinator, if the people ain’t stepping/You see a part of me that you never seen/When I’m fiending for a microphone/I’m the microphone fiend…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim’s metaphor in which he compares his “addiction” to rhyming to that of a drug addict’s desperate need for heroin, is predictable in a sense, yet perfectly pellucid in delivery.
Speaking of delivery, I think ‘The God MC’ blesses listeners with at least two quotable-worthy lines on “Microphone Fiend”.
“After 12, I’m worse than a Gremlin/Feed me hip-hop and I start trembling…” Source: Rap Genius
“It’s a must that I bust any mic you hand to me/It’s inherited, it runs in the family…” Source: Rap Genius
Which line is the hottest?
“Lyrics of Fury”
I have to say: I’m not crazy about this beat. It’s average — but Rakim’s lyrics more than overcompensates the record’s basic drum track.
“The scene of a crime every night at the show/The fiend of a rhyme on the mic that you know/It’s only one capable, breaks the unbreakable/Melodies-unmakeable/Pattern-unescapable/I haunt if you want the style I possess/I bless the child, the earth, the gods and bomb the rest/For those that envy an MC, it can be/Hazardous to your health, so be friendly/A matter of life and death/Just like an Etch A Sketch/Shake ’til you’re clear, make it disappear, make the next…
…After the ceremony, let the rhyme rest in peace/If not, my soul’ll release/The scene is recreated/Reincarnated/Updated/I’m glad you made it/Cause you’re about to see a disastrous sight/A performance never again performed on a mic/Lyrics of fury!…” Source: Rap Genius
The wordplay on this record is remarkable. The “R” is so exceptionally gifted as an MC that every record he released during his prime was eventful — even if certain elements of a track were mediocre.
And by the way: Follow The Leader has one of the best album covers in the history of Hip Hop. Those jackets worn by Eric. B & Rakim — custom made by the pioneer of urban fashion, Dapper Dan — is authentic Hip Hop, personified. The duo had on the coolest outdoor wear ever, as far I was concerned!
The release of Follow The Leader fortified Rakim’s foundation as the leading voice of premium lyricism in Hip Hop. Rakim didn’t take any artistic chances on the project. He stayed tried-and-true to a formula that elevated him to stardom when Paid In Full was released.
Rakim moved forward and ascended to an even higher plane on Follow The Leader, largely propelled by the album’s two outstanding singles, the album’s title track and “Microphone Fiend”.
By this point in his career, there were very, very few (honestly, hardly, any) MCs who were comparable to ‘The God MC’ in any meaningful way. The lyrical plane he was on, was not just higher — but transcendent.
Before moving on to the next album released during Rakim’s peak, I must highlight his rhyme performance on Jody Watley’s Top 10 record, “Friends”
Jody Watley’s career dates back to the late 70’s when she was a member of the R&B dance trio, Shalamar. Watley goes solo in the late 80’s — her self-titled debut album was huge and she won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1988. So, Watley was already a big pop star in 1989 when “Friends”, off her second album, Larger Than Life, was released.
Still, I feel like “Friends” were mutually beneficial for Watley and Rakim. The God MC’s guest appearance gave Watley street credibility with the Hip Hop crowd, while the song exposed Rakim’s lyricism to a broader audience — many, who weren’t fans of rap music.
Personally, I think “Friends” is underrated in the annals of R&B/Rap records released since Hip Hop’s inception — other, splashier collaborations receive greater yet less warranted attention — Jody and Rakim’s chemistry on the record produced a surprising musical bond.
The song is about the predictable yet inevitable pitfalls of friendship. Rakim explores the topic in his rhyme with a level of insight you would expect from a Lyrical Luminary. His rhyme adds value to an already good song. Rakim’s verses don’t distract or divert from the song’s theme — or overwhelm its track with an over-the-top delivery. Rakim manages to stay within the boundary of the record’s subject matter and rhythmic vibe, while dropping priceless gems on the shifting waves of relationships.
Here’s part of Rakim’s first guest verse.
“Friends are hard to find so be careful/You’ll get fried in the end to remind and prepare you/That some ain’t that bad/But one might back-stab/To get their fingertips, on what one might have…
…Bite the hand that feeds you/Lead the people who need you/From those who hold you back and mislead you/To be a leader, don’t get lead on or led in/The wrong direction/a Dead-end’s next then/Use your detour, life’s like a seesaw/Ups and downs and I bet there’ll be more…” Source: Rap Genius
I don’t know if there’s another MC who can describe friendship in such an eloquently intricate way. Rakim didn’t just ‘throw together’ a verse — the listener can tell that the rhymes were composed after deliberate thought and consideration. Rakim is allergic to giving listeners wasteful lines. Even on an R&B/Pop record, Rakim shows a commitment to next-level emceeing.
Check out Rakim’s second verse in its entirety, which explores whether the friendship of man and woman is worth having after a romantic relationship grows sour.
“You used to kiss me/Tell me you missed me/But now you try glaze me, play me, and diss me/I’m wide awake, ready to break, so we’d argue/What happened to the kisses and “Ra, how are you?”/Forgot about the times when I rhymed when I bathed you/Rings were the only little things that I gave you/Still ain’t thankful, you’re still complaining/Used to be a quiet storm but now it’s raining…
…Harder than ever/I’m thinking whether/If we should be friends/Let it end/Is it better/To forget or remember/Your body’s tender/The vibes that I send her/Makes her surrender/The feelings I capture/Caught in a rapture/No woman can’t match her/So when I’m looking at ya/Paint a perfect picture so you can remember me/But you’ll get fried in the end if you pretend to be…” Source: Rap Genius
I’ve heard this song countless times since its 1989 release. But man — Rakim’s poetic perspective on passion plus pain, in a volatile relationship, is quite stunning. Not only does he not waste bars — his lyrical punch to the gut about the emotional rollercoaster of a relationship packs more power than the full repertoire of most MCs.
How many MCs can show rhyme supremacy through a guest appearance on a popular R&B record?
Paid In Full is a classic, seminal album in Hip Hop. Follow The Leader is a very strong sophomore effort with two signature songs by the dynamic duo. Both albums established the duo as one of the best in the business and Rakim — as, arguably the best lyricist in the rap game.
Personally, I think Rakim’s lyrical potency — as powerful as it was on Paid In Full and Follow The Leader — would get even stronger with the release of Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em. Sure, there were bigger hits on the duo’s first two albums. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say: Rakim gave his best overall lyrical performance on Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em.
Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em was released in 1990 during the heart of Hip Hop’s Golden Age. Several seminal rap albums — culture game-changers — were released that year. Eric B. & Rakim were respected seasoned veterans by the time their third studio project came out. The duo had a proven track record. But competition in Hip Hop had significantly increased in ferocity by this time. MCs sounded better and better. Rakim had to bring his A-game every time he grabbed the microphone.
‘The God’ delivered.
Here are some highlights…
“Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em”
Rakim uses combat terminology on the album’s title track, which is quite appropriate because he demonstrates military-like discipline with his lyrical performance. Rakim rhymes with a military mindset, sounding like an Army General on “Let The Rhythm Hit’ Em”. But Rakim was not a General calling all of the shots from the Pentagon, or a U.S. military base in a foreign land. No, on “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em”, Rakim is a General right in the middle of the battle, ready to cross over into enemy lines and willing to die for the cause.
Rakim is very deliberate on the record; he’s precise in his wordplay selection and delivery timing. Each line adds further context to the previous line, and sets the scene for the next line coming after. While certainly not the most radio-friendly track, the beat is a perfect fit for the arsenal of combative rhymes Rakim aims and fires on the record.
An incredibly executed military-musical metaphor; Ra’s rhymes are more than lyrics on a standard rap record, they are of high literary value — like a classic best-selling novel in the suspenseful-filled genre of military fiction.
“I’m the arsenal, I got artillery, lyrics are ammo/Rounds of rhythm, then I’m ah give ’em piano/Bring a bullet-proof vest, nothin’ to ricochet/Ready, aim at the brain/Now what the trigger say/Tempos trifle/Felt like a rifle/Massage and melodies might go right through/Simultaneously like an Uzi/Nothin’ can bruise me/Lyrics let up, when lady say don’t lose me/So reload quickly, and you better hit me/While I’m letting this Fifi get with me/You stepping with double-0-seven (007), better make it snappy/No time to do your hair baby, brothers are busting at me…” Source: Rap Genius
When it comes to the rhyme skills of a really special MC — a Lyrical Luminary — it’s very difficult to pinpoint his or her very best performance. This is largely due to the sheer amount of outstanding lyrical performances a great MC has given throughout his or her career.
As a cultural critic and essayist, I find myself caught in a perpetual state of indecisiveness when attempting to distinguish the work of great MCs, singers, musicians producers, and other artists in general.
“No Omega” was not a hit song (it wasn’t released as a single, for one thing). It’s not widely seen as one of Eric B. & Rakim’s signature records. It’s probably not in the Top 5 of most fans’ favorite Rakim performances.
But it should be.
I think “No Omega” is underrated — it’s overshadowed by brilliant performances on other popular songs from Paid In Full, Follow The Leader, as well as the project “No Omega” was featured on, Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em. But Rakim’s excellent execution on “No Omega” is more than a footnote at the bottom of the primary text of his masterful musical manuscript.
Rediscovery of this performance might make stubborn critics rearrange their Top 5 GOAT MC list! And if you haven’t heard this record, unfortunately, that means you have yet to hear the best-of-the-best in supreme lyricism.
“I’m the Alpha with no Omega/Beginning without the end, so play the/Ironside, no extended version/Next episode’ll be smooth as a Persian/Rhymes everlastin’, there’ll be no part 2/Knowledge is infinite, once I start to/Draw a better picture for your third eye, if you’re blind/You know with a mic, I’m a black Michaelangelo…
…I’m the brother who — ideas are colorful/Giving ’em insight, but giving ’em trouble to/Comprehend ’cause their thoughts won’t blend in/They’re pretending, while I’m extending/You bite like a parasite, static when you attach/But you won’t strike ‘cause you ain’t no match/You need more light ‘cause yours got dim/Then you get sparked by the Lord Rakim…” Source: Rap Genius
Oh — I just have to include this quotable line that Rakim delivers with scintillating wit.
“I heat you up like a black mink coat/Hug your neck like a fat gold rope/Words I speak and my DJ’s cuts/Will warm your ears, like mink earmuffs…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim gave listeners the heat — with style.
“In The Ghetto”
An argument can be made that “In The Ghetto” is Eric. B & Rakim’s biggest song in terms of impact. Some may disagree, but, again — a solid argument (a rather persuasive one, I might add) can be put forth just on the strength of the song’s subject matter.
Social consciousness had become a staple in Hip Hop by the time Eric B. & Rakim released “In The Ghetto” as the first single off Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em. Yet, only a few MCs delivered the principles of social consciousness at a high level in their music.
Rakim is not necessarily seen as a socially-conscious lyricist, but that’s precisely what he is. And he showcased his skills for sharing profound insight on life’s experiences when “In The Ghetto” was released.
A major factor of Rakim’s insight is his adoption of Five Percenter theology, mindset, and lifestyle, which had a significant influence on his lyricism. Because Five Percent Nation is a driving force in his life, naturally, Rakim injects the Nation’s belief system — steeped in scientific theories (and, not without controversy) into his rhymes.
Similar to his performance on “Friends”, on “In The Ghetto”, Rakim tackles the subject of poverty and struggle with a high level of grace and insight atypical of even the most elite MCs. And I can’t help but consider Five Percent theology as being a critical factor in Rakim’s ability to clearly communicate the arc of life experience.
But you don’t need to be a Five-Percenter to understand the lyrics of “In The Ghetto”. Some Five-Percenter MCs too often fall into what I call a ‘theology trap’ — most of their lyrics fully absorb a rigid belief system that confounds some, while strongly conflicts with the worldview of others. One of Rakim’s gifts is his ability to give it to you straight, no chaser — without chasing you away! On the contrary, the purpose of Rakim’s thoughtful and deliberate delivery is to pull you in as he drops the kind of science you didn’t learn in high school.
“In The Ghetto” has one of the best (though simple and obvious) opening lines in the history of Hip Hop, as ‘The God MC’ takes listeners on a journey through time and space.
(This is another one of those instances when I really want to post every word of the song lyrics. But, I’ll resist and just share the record’s powerful first verse.)
“Planet Earth was my place of birth/Born to be the soul controller of the universe/Besides the part of the map, I hit first/Any environment I can adapt when it gets worst/The rough gets goin’, the goin’ gets rough/When I start flowing, the mic might bust/The next state’ll shake from the power I generate/People in Cali used to think it was earthquakes/’Cause times is hard on the Boulevard/So I Bogart and never get scarred/I’m God/But it seems like I’m locked in Hell/Lookin’ over the edge but the R never fell…
…Or tripped or slipped/Cause my Nike’s got grip/Stand on my own two feet, and come equipped/Any stage I’m seen on/Or mic I fiend on/I stand alone, and need nothin’ to lean on/Goin’ for self with a long way to go/So much to say, but I still flow slow/I come correct, and I won’t look back/Cause it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at…” Source: Rap Genius
PLEASE!! Listen to this song in its entirety after you finish reading this piece.
In my thought piece on Lyrical Luminary Big Daddy Kane I addressed what I felt was Kane’s over-embrace of the rap love song — and compared the Brooklyn MC’s approach to making ballads to the career-defining way Queens-representative, L.L. Cool J did it.
Well, I feel like Rakim should be thrown into that discussion, a bit. Certainly not known for rap ballads, I think ‘The God MC’ penned one of the best rap love songs ever made — the Al Green-sampled, “Mahogany”.
If you think about it — it’s not at all surprising that Rakim would be able to pull off such a great record about a romantic encounter with a woman he meets before a show. The song is actually two masterclasses-in-one; illustrating Rakim’s proficiency in both storytelling and rap ballad genres.
Rakim made a rap ballad that the fellas didn’t have to pretend they didn’t know the words to! In fact, if guys were like me — they knew every word to “Mahogany”. I can’t speak on how well the song was received by women, but ‘The God MC’ has the qualities that tend to attract the ladies: genuine strength, and of course, ‘controlled confidence’.
I think “Mahogany” changed the way fans looked at Rakim (again, similar to the impact of his performances on “Friends” and “In The Ghetto”). The song showed just how much versatility ‘The R’ had in his repertoire. Rakim had already cemented his status as a master in the ring of rap. On “Mahogany”, he showed that he was the master of seduction as well.
Here’s the entire first verse.
“Me and Eric B was cooling at the Palladium/Seen an all-world cover girl, I said hey lady I’m/Sorry if you’re in a rush — don’t let me hold you up/Or intervene or interrupt, but/You got the look — I wanna get to know you better/I had to let her know — but yo, I didn’t sweat her/Cause if you would’ve seen what I was seeing
Almost looked Korean, but European/When she spoke, her accent was self-explanatory/Even her body language told the story/Her name was Mahogany — twin’s name was Ebony/I said my name is Ra and this is Eric B…
…Since the music was loud, I said let’s take a walk/So we could talk and see New York/Show time didn’t start until one o’clock/But once I entered your mind I wouldn’t wanna stop/Caress your thoughts ‘til we was thinking the same/Calm your nerves, massage your brain…
…Each moment’s a mineral/Poetry’s protein/Verse is a vitamin, effects like codeine/So tell me how you feel and I’ll reveal/A pill that’ll heal ya pain, ’cause I’m real/She musta OD’d ’cause she couldn’t resist/She spoke slowly when she told me this, she said…” Source: Rap Genius
“Juice (Know The Ledge)”
The 1992 film, “Juice” is famous for a few things. First, it’s one of the biggest movies in the ‘hood film’ genre popularized in the 1990s. Second, it launched the ‘Thug Life’ persona of Tupac Shakur (I’ll be taking a deep-dive into Pac’s musical career in an upcoming essay in the Lyrical Luminary series).
The third thing Juice is known for — its soundtrack. The ‘hood films don’t thrive as they did in the ’90s without their Hip Hop soundtracks. In fact, the rap music genre essentially paved for the ‘hood film genre.
Eric B. & Rakim co-starred on the soundtrack’s title song. Just as with “Friends”, it was another high-profile moment for the duo. But the lights weren’t too bright for Rakim, in fact, it was his lyrics that gave the soundtrack its spark. Of course, the audience for the “Juice” record was already fully devoted believers of ‘The God MC’ when the song was released.
The song’s subtitle, “(Know The Ledge)” — a play on the word, knowledge, is Five-Percent terminology that is meaningful in its use, while being incredibly clever, but that’s simply expected from ‘The God MC’.
In this case, I think I’ll share the entire last verse.
“A brand new morn’, no time to yawn/Shower’s on, power’s on/Late for school, I catch the train/Girls sip the style and whisper my name/I push up like an exercise/Check their intellect and inspect the thighs/Select the best one, pull her to the side/Keep her occupied for the rest of the ride/Read her my résumé, she know already/Cool/Just meet me after school/We can moan and groan until your moms come home/And you’ll be calling me Al “Dope” Capone…
…Sweating me, she didn’t want to let me loose/Come get me, that’s if you want to sip the juice/’Cause the streets await me/So I take my gun off safety/Cause a lot of n***** hate me/Comin’ out of the building, they set me up/Sprayed with automatics, they wet me up/In a puddle of blood, I lay close to the edge/I guess I didn’t Know the Ledge…” Source: Rap Genius
As much as I love the film, Juice, and was blown away by the performances of the actors — particularly Tupac and Omar Epps — Rakim’s lyrical performance on “Juice (Know The Ledge)” is great storytelling and poignantly cinematic, in its own right.
By the time Hip Hop approaches the tail end of its Golden Age, Rakim is clearly on top of his game. Follow The Leader, Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em, as well as the singles, “Friends” and “Juice (Know The Ledge)”, were all special releases that solidified Rakim’s high standing among the culture’s great lyricists.
But Hip Hop was changing — rapidly. High-level lyricism was still a premium benefit, but subject matter, ‘reinforcements’ (your hood, crew, and rhyme affiliates), and a carefully crafted image were becoming the most valuable triangular of assets for an MC. As he stated in “Juice”, everyone knew Rakim’s impeccable resume — but when it came to the new rules of the rap game, did ‘The God MC’ know the ledge?
Why did Rakim’s career experience an incredulous decline?
So, as I’m sure you’ve noticed — I did not include Eric B. & Rakim’s fourth studio album, Don’t Sweat The Technique, in my commentary about The God MC’s peak.
Well, even though I think the album was a symbol of strength, to suspecting ears like mine, Don’t Sweat The Technique revealed cracks in the whole armor of ‘The God MC’.
The album’s title track, “Casualties of War”, “Pass The Hand Grenade” and “The Punisher” are all examples of solid lyrical performances. “What’s On Your Mind” continued Ra’s seductive sway over the ladies while still delivering piercing lyrics that real hip-hop heads could relate to. “Teach the Children” is a strong socially conscious record, without sermonizing.
I think an artist can make a good album and still be at the beginning stages (or even in the midst) of a decline. The overall presentation of Don’t Sweat The Technique simply wasn’t as compelling as the collection of work Eric B. & and Rakim released on their previous three albums.
Rakim hadn’t lost a step lyrically but he noticeably sounded a little less inspired. To Rakim zealots, I realize that statement may come across as sacrilege, but that’s just how it felt to me. To be clear: Rakim at 75% is better than most MCs’ very best performance on a rare day. But Rakim’s emceeing was not the primary issue — the production was just ok — standard Hip Hop beats and samples that didn’t grab the listeners the way classic records from the previous three albums had done.
I think even Rakim’s most staunch supporters (and I consider myself among them) would concede Don’t Sweat The Technique is the weakest of the duo’s four studio albums.
Let’s continue the boxing analogy, but, with a different boxing legend — “Sugar Ray” Leonard.
Sugar Ray Leonard was one of my favorite boxers when I was a kid. Known for his footwork, flair, and fearlessness, he was the most entertaining boxer of his era to watch. I was too young to see Muhammad Ali (I’ve only seen footage of his bouts) — but I can remember watching Sugar Ray in his prime.
These are the most famous, all-time classic fights of Sugar Ray’s career:
- vs Roberto Duran I (June 20, 1980)
- vs Roberto Duran II (November 25, 1980)
- vs Thomas Hearns I (September 16, 1981)
- vs Marvin Hagler (April 6, 1987)
- vs Thomas Hearns II (June 12, 1989)
- vs Roberto Duran III (December 7, 1989)
With over 40 professional fights, Sugar Ray’s highlight reel — a massive collection of jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and 25 knockouts, is as impressive as any prizefighter’s ‘greatest hits’ in the history of boxing.
In just a little over a year after fighting and beating Roberto Duran in their third and (most famous) final bout, Sugar Ray Leonard faced Terry Norris for the light-middleweight title on February 9, 1991. Leonard was knocked down twice and lost the fight by unanimous decision.
At this point, Leonard’s career is over, for all intents and purposes. Sugar Ray had nothing left to prove — he would always be regarded as one of the fight game’s greatest boxers; a Hall of Famer, no doubt.
Leonard was set to be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. But a few months before his official induction, he came out of retirement, at 40 years old, to face a 34-year old Puerto Rican southpaw dynamo, Hector Camacho.
Even though Leonard was 40 years old and hadn’t fought in 6 years, in his mind, he was still ‘Sugar Ray’. Leonard was convinced he could beat Camacho.
Camacho knocked Leonard down early in the 5th round. And after Sugar Ray got up, Camacho kept punishing him. The referee had seen enough and stopped the fight.
Sugar’s sweet science of pure boxing brilliance had turned sour. (Source: Four Kings by Pete Hamill).
Rakim didn’t ‘lose’ with the release of Don’t Sweat The Technique as Sugar Ray did against Terry Norris, but he didn’t win either — the overall reception of the project felt like a draw. Like Sugar Ray, Rakim thought he had more fight in him, but unlike in Leonard’s case, most fans thought so too.
No, Don’t Sweat The Technique wasn’t a great album but it was a solid effort, Rakim still had a sweet flow — there was no one who thought Rakim should go into retirement from the rap game as Sugar Ray had done in the boxing game after losing to Norris.
But retirement is what it seemed like Rakim did. Well, it’s more complicated than that. Due to a contract dispute Eric B. & Rakim had with MCA, as well as other personal issues, Rakim simply didn’t record.
Eric B. & Rakim split up and Rakim’s second act as a soloist stalled for a while. Sugar Ray Leonard made his return to the boxing ring to face Camacho in what was appropriately seen as an overly confident comeback. Rakim was poised to make a comeback too, but unlike Sugar Ray, Rakim faced intense pressure of anticipation from the crowd; fans of his supreme lyricism waited patiently for The God MC’s return to the center of rap’s ring.
But when Rakim finally returned to Hip Hop’s battleground in November 1997 to release his debut solo album (5th album total), The 18th Letter, he soon discovered there were younger and hungrier lyrical dynamos looking to ‘knock him down’, just as Camacho had done to Sugar Ray Leonard in the fifth round of their boxing bout earlier that same year.
Just about every great MC — every Lyrical Luminary — faces the changing tastes of the ‘Hip Hop electorate’, if you will. The fans will ‘elect’ an MC and then vote him out or simply give his ‘agenda’ a lukewarm reception.
By 1997, Hip Hop had experienced quite a stark contrast since Don’t Sweat The Technique’s release. And the change was even more pronounced in comparison to Rakim’s glory years of Paid In Full, Follow The Leader and Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em.
Lyricism still reigned, but to a certain (lesser) degree. Radio-friendly records, heavy on style and low and substance, garnered most of the public’s attention. Crossover rap records as well as ‘gangsta’ tales were all the rage. Hip Hop went through a period of west coast dominance anchored by the draw of gang-banging culture, and a sudden southern emergence stimulated by an underdog spirit and soulful grit.
The sound of the East Coast had changed as well. Five Percent theology, while still influential in Hip Hop, didn’t resonate as much as it once did, particularly beyond the northeast (even though Rakim’s poetic theology in “The Mystery (Who is God)” off The 18th Letter album, is sheer brilliance).
East Coast Hip Hop was grimier than it was during Rakim’s peak; stories of hardcore urban life were now being told by the MC from the point-of-view of the street hustler — regardless of whether or not the MC actually lived the life he rhymed so convincingly about. Again, pure lyricism mattered, but details of sex, drugs, violence, and fast money overrode the virtues of regal rhyme-play.
Rakim’s style and substance on The 18th Letter and then its follow-up project, The Master (1999) was not compatible with the culture’s climate in the late ’90s. Musical production on the projects didn’t particularly stand out. Rakim didn’t feel the need to reinvent himself, which is understandable, however, that didn’t stop the culture from undergoing a complete reinvention of itself.
The 18th Letter and The Master are solid projects, lyrically, but not all that memorable. ‘The God MC’ was still the master architect of well-constructed rhymes. Nevertheless, Rakim received the same rather lukewarm reception when he released his third solo album, The Seventh Seal in 2009 — this project being released this time after a ten-year hiatus!
Rakim played to his strengths when he was in his prime but in this ‘new’ state of Hip Hop, the impact of lyricism had its limits. The audience craved ‘club bangers’ as well as compelling musical street narratives that made listeners feel like they were living a movie, as they rode through the streets, bobbing their heads to the beats.
It became evident that Rakim was not as calculating in his career moves as he was in the construction of his rhymes. He made the most consequential error a Lyrical Luminary can make: a lack of active recording. In my opinion — that was his achilles’ heel. There was simply too wide of a gap between solo projects and his last studio release with Eric B., Don’t Sweat The Technique.
This brings me to another issue: if there was ever an MC that didn’t need a crew (or even affiliates), it was Rakim. Other than Eric B., he never seemed closely affiliated with anyone. He wasn’t on mixtapes. He didn’t make many guest appearances on other people’s projects, and very few MCs showed up on his projects. I don’t think this — in itself — starts or drives a decline, but it can certainly be a factor in its acceleration.
In my estimation, Rakim was a victim of ‘God-like’ expectations, which was impossible to live up to largely due to his spotty recording regimen, a changing of the guard, and the contradictory nature of fans’ fluid tastes and preferences.
Why is Rakim the gift that keeps on giving to Hip Hop?
Gifts are different than talents. As I stated earlier in this essay, a person can be talented but not necessarily gifted. Talent is simply the ability to be notably good at something, to the point that your skill stands out among most — but it takes work to achieve that distinction. Even some of the most talented people fail to reach greatness.
Greatness is a special kind of classification. The characterization is reserved for those who have obtained very high levels of excellence in their areas of expertise. Greatness is truly special, it’s rarely realized which is why I think it’s grossly overused to describe people, places, and things, such as events.
Then, there are gifts — from God — that only a selected few are divinely blessed with. A gift is unique to its human vessel and beholders of the gift are filled with marvel (through one or all of their discovery senses) every time they’re fortunate enough to experience the gift’s sheer impact. Gifts are shared — with the world — they can be seen and heard, experienced by the touch, and consumed by taste.
Being blessed with a gift doesn’t grant one superiority over others in a certain area of expertise, in fact, many gifts idly ‘sit’, unused. And when they are used, gifts are often under-utilized, their divine purposes unfulfilled.
I think Rakim was blessed with a gift, and, over a short period of time, became a full embodiment of that gift.
‘The God MC’ is a gift to Hip Hop; to the art of emceeing in its purest form. Almost single-handedly, he took the act of rhyming several degrees higher than where it was when he and Eric B. came onto the Hip Hop scene. As the culture was trying to find its voice, Rakim became the voice of the MC. With his flawless flow and cadence; his thoughtful insight, authoritative tone, and extraordinary wordplay — Rakim became ‘The God MC’ because he fully utilized the divine powers of his gift.
I have a great deal of respect for pioneering MCs from the late ’70s and early ’80s, who essentially created what we know today as rap music. Several of these MCs will be given their proper due in upcoming essays in the Lyrical Luminary series. Trust that. But I think Rakim changed the game — in terms of pure lyricism — more than any other MC who came before him.
Calligraphy is more than ‘fancy’ penmanship — it’s a supreme visual art form, so revered in some countries around the world — calligraphers are held in higher esteem than painters, sculptors, or other types of artists. Rakim’s lyricism is not basic rhyme-play like handwriting skills a young child learns in elementary school. Rakim transformed rhyming into an art form, like the ancient discipline of calligraphy.
The most gifted calligraphers are masters of the visual art form, their work is admired and studied for generations. Rakim’s lyricism has been studied by more MCs than arguably any other lyricist — rightfully so. I don’t know if any MC can come close to his lyrical genius, but their own pen games can’t help but be ‘blessed’ by studying the wonders of Rakim’s gift.
The greatest MCs (there are too many, but fellow Lyrical Luminary, Nas, comes to mind) have extensively studied the lyricism of Rakim. His impact is felt throughout all corners of emceeing; MC from the ranks of every rhyme style have been inspired by Rakim’s gift. And “every day is Christmas” (to borrow a silky smooth Sade lyric) when ‘The God MC’ shares his gift to Hip Hop masses.
Though certainly highly revered in Hip Hop, unlike most MCs, Rakim is the antithesis to the cult of personality dynamic pervasive in the culture. ‘The God MC’ told us his steady stance on “In The Ghetto”
“Any stage I’m seen on/Or mic I fiend on/I stand alone and need nothing to lean on…” Source: Rap Genius
Rakim has truly earned his admiration and respect — through his commitment to rhyme supremacy display, every time he grabs the mic. I think all of his work has served well in the fulfillment of his purpose as an MC. It’s not something Rakim takes lightly. He rhymes with unshakable focus. He’s ‘architectural’ with his lyrics — each rhyme is like a building block connected to the rhyme that precedes it, as well as the rhymes not yet said. Like a grandmaster chess player, Rakim is always thinking several moves ahead.
As great of an MC as Rakim is, his impact on Hip Hop is greater than lyricism. Rakim — from his controlled confidence and calm demeanor, to his total devotion to the scientific principles of the Five Percent Nation — instilled a high degree of dignity into the culture. Maybe more than any other, Rakim implored MCs to strive for lyrical excellence, above all else.
Is ‘The God MC’ the GOAT?
In her bestseller book, The Wine Bible, internationally-renowned wine expert, Karen MacNeil, writes about the lifelong journey wine lovers like herself happily endure in search of the very best wine ever produced.
Here’s how MacNeil describes the worldwide appeal of the fermented alcoholic juice: “Wine has a way of pulling you into it — of making you want to taste and experience more.”
Since I’m not a connoisseur of wine, I can only assume that sipping on the finest wine is the ultimate taste of triumphant throughout a wine lover’s journey.
The journey of every connoisseur of hip-hop, seeking to hear the greatest lyrical performances ever delivered in the culture, should look no further than the God-like mastery of Rakim. But even casual observers and curious on-lookers of the culture must hear the words of ‘The God’ if they really want to know what a truly gifted MC sounds like.
Rakim’s lyricism is like the finest wine; it’s an experience listeners want to keep enjoying; bar-after-bar, verse-after-verse, album-after-album, and then repeat the journey, like a wine lover obsessively revisiting the most prominent wine region throughout France. Just as fine wine from France is not just for French people, Rakim’s lyrical excellence is not restricted to just the classic Hip Hop crowd — his gift is meant to be cherished across all generations of the culture.
Rakim’s legacy is substantive in nature — from his lyrical structure and insight to his dissemination of Five Percent theology to the Hip Hop world. There’s an argument to be made that though Rakim shared his gift with genuine commitment and devotion, he still never reached his full potential as an artist. There are rhymes he has yet to deliver that could change the game, again, as he did back in ’86 when “Eric B. Is President” was unleashed onto the streets.
Most Hip Hop music falls into one of two categories: Earworms or what I call Rewind-Worthy. Earworms are basically songs that get stuck in your head due to its catchiness. The song may indeed be memorable but that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of being declared great.
Speaking of worthiness, Rewind-Worthy records have a different kind of sticky quality to them. The songs don’t simply get stuck in your head, they become ingrained in your brain due to a remarkable lyrical or vocal performance, or by a show of musical mastery, like the euphonious chords of a brilliant keyboardist.
A major part of Rakim’s legacy is the rewind-worthiness of his lyrical performances — the way his most insightful quotes have biblical-like qualities. With the aid of Eric. B.’s deejaying skills, Rakim delivered rhymes that are unforgettable for their stunning remarkability as opposed to the lyrical contents of most rap earworms whose catchiness is often driven by rudiment redundancy.
The Earworm vs Rewind-Worthy is just one factor among several that illustrate Rakim’s significant separation from other MCs (including most Lyrical Luminaries). Rakim is well-regarded, though I think he’s somewhat underappreciated. Rakim’s reputation for lyrical brilliance can overshadow the fact that he and Eric B. experienced notable commercial success. Eric B. & Rakim had several top 10 rap records — Paid In Full went platinum, while Follow The Leader and Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em both went gold.
Rakim’s special brand of potent lyricism backed by funk samples and Eric B’s cuts and scratches was a highly-rewarding recipe that achieved great overall success.
As far as the GOAT debate, Rakim should absolutely be on everyone’s shortlist. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone over 40 years old (Gen Xers and the youngest of Baby Boomers) not having Rakim in their Top 10. Millennials, Gen Z’s (and obviously, forthcoming generations) have missed out on the ‘Rakim Experience’ that took place during his prime, so, naturally, most of them lack extensive knowledge of The God’s catalog.
But the evidence is readily available — its key points are definitive and overwhelming — presented with clarity through three incredible albums (and a few other good ones), like a compelling closing statement given by a skillful attorney.
Honestly, the GOAT title fails to fully assess the true value of Rakim’s gift. Talent is very good. Great — is great. But a special gift that seems to have come from a higher power doesn’t need classification; it stands on its own. The fact is, the question of who’s the GOAT is not an objective discussion anyway, it’s a subjective debate that’s very likely to become heated among passionate believers.
But here’s what I feel is practically undebatable; the widely-held belief, that singularly describes one man, which has remained unchanged for decades…
In Hip Hop, there’s only one true God MC — he goes by the name, Rakim.