Before Rakim there was no rap. Or more accurately, there was rap, but not in the form we know today. In the early ‘80s hip-hop was dominated by DJs, with emcees a distant second, but then Rakim and his partner Erik B. dropped the seminal album Paid in Full, almost single-handedly introducing the concepts of lyricism, metaphor, and flow that became the pillars of modern rap. It’s crazy to think that there was a time before rap, but there was, just like there was a time before cars, electricity or the internet. There’s a reason …
DJBooth Album Review
So how could Rakim’s new album The Seventh Seal be so average? As I’ve written before, unlike athletes there’s no inherent reason for a rapper to lose their flow as they age, so why is it that I’m so thoroughly unimpressed by The Seventh Seal? Rakim’s skills couldn’t have simply diminished, could they? Actually, no. In many ways Rakim is the same rapper he was more than 20 years ago, and that’s exactly the problem. Unlike other old school rappers like KRS-ONE who stayed active in the game, constantly tweaking their delivery as hip-hop evolved, Rakim has been almost completely absent, releasing only a meager three albums over the last 17 years. Think of it this way: in 1903 the Wright brothers flew the first functional airplane, an invention of almost unparalleled magnitude. But now, more than 100 years later, the Wright brother’s early aircraft simply couldn’t keep up with the modern jet. Does that diminish their genius or accomplishment? No, not at all, but the field they created inevitably surpassed their original vision. Now substitute the Wright brothers for Rakim, and airplanes for rap.
Back to the lesson at hand. To clarify, The Seventh Seal is only average by Rakim’s lofty standards, and in fact it contains more than a couple tracks that, while not instant classics, sound like the work of a legendary rapper, starting with Documentary of a Gangster, a cinematic track featuring Rakim at the peak of his storytelling powers. While a piano-laced beat courtesy of Y-Not bumps in the background, Rakim tells the tale of a young and reckless gangster with carefully crafted lyricism and a deceptively complex delivery. To put it bluntly, do not f**k with Rakim on Documentary of a Gangster. While some would prefer for Rakim to leave his religious views at home, I’d also throw Holy Are You into this group (his fearless rhymes more than makes up for the track’s shaky production), along with the celebratory Satisfaction Guaranteed, a pacing cut featuring Rakim flowing over the shaking production with ease. The man’s still got his fastball, even if he doesn’t throw often.
Unfortunately, moments like Documentary are the exception, not the rule, on Seventh Seal. The average Seventh Seal title track could be described as sub-par production paired with good but not great vocals and rhymes from Rakim that, while impressive, certainly don’t feel like the work of a hip-hop deity. Just take Won’t Be Long, a track whose beat sounds unfinished, a shaky sonic backdrop that Rakim uses to complain about the current state of hip-hop without any real creativity. On the same tip is the failed love song Psychic Love and the mismatched You & I, a track that swings but never connects. I’d actually put Walk These Streets among the best of this disappointing group. Now a lot of purists have decried Maino’s appearance on the track – no disrespect, but Rakim has one guest rapper on his album and he goes with Maino? Really? – but Maino does fine, but more importantly, on Walk These Streets Rakim sounds almost like he’s intentionally dumbing down his flow, making his anti-hater proclamations sound like a dad who tries to copy his kids’ slang. And yes, it almost hurts me to write about Rakim like this.
To keep the analogy orgy going, when Jordan came back to play for the Wizards he was still an above-average NBA player, but the distance between “greatest ever” and “above-average” is enormous, and it was painfully evident to anyone who watched Jordan that year that he was a shadow of his former self. This is by no means the final chapter for Rakim, he could easily become an elite rapper again, but for now he’s more of a living piece of hip-hop history than a current contributor to the culture. Take it or leave it, but that’s the truth. All praise due.
DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 11/24/09
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