The greatest rapper of all time? It used to be an easy call. A prodigiously gifted rhymer from way out in Wyandanch, Long Island, Rakim introduced himself in 1986 alongside DJ Eric B with the double-sided “Eric B Is President/My Melody” 12-inch and helped inaugurate hip-hop’s ballyhooed Golden Era. Decked out in custom-made Dapper Dan suits scored from 125th Street, he hung with the original 50 Cent (a/k/a Kelvin Martin, a stick-up kid who terrorized Fort Greene) and befriended Mike Tyson, yet he also flaunted lyrics that made him sound philosophically deeper than any rapper who dared to pick up a mic before or after him. Each syllable sounded preordained—there’s barely a line from Eric B and Rakim’s 1987 classic Paid in Full that hasn’t since been quoted, paraphrased, or appropriated as the basis for a completely different song by another rapper. He nominated himself the “God MC,” and we all agreed.
But by the time Eric B and Rakim signed off on their fourth classic album (Don’t Sweat the Technique) in 1992, hip-hop had become increasingly comfortable with its mass-commercial potential, and style began to overshadow substance. Dr. Dre helped Snoop Dogg bring gangsta rap’s menace to the suburbs. 2Pac showed that cult of personality and a reckless rock star attitude could be as intoxicating as the music. And in 1996, Jay-Z, on the rebound after initially faltering in the days when Rakim was still king, synthesized the idea of the rapper not as artist, but as a business-minded man who just so happened to rap: a mindset followed by almost every breakout rapper since.
Suddenly, Rakim’s use of drug imagery to describe his addiction to rhyming (“I fiend for a mic like heroin/Soon as the bass kicks, I need another hit”) sounded quaint cast against Jay’s corporate repositioning of rap as merely a living analogy of the crack game. And so the criteria for hip-hop greatness morphed: Now, message-board squabbles are as likely to focus on a rapper’s ability to coin hooks, stay relevant, run a clothing line, and move units on the anniversaries of national terrorist disasters as on their pure ability to rhyme.
It is into this alien arena that Rakim is attempting to reassert his mastery with The Seventh Seal, an album seven years in the making and his first since 1999’s The Master. He’s aware of the mammoth challenge he faces: “I definitely had to keep in mind there’s a world out there that don’t know me, so I need to let people know that I’m new and improved,” he notes, chatting on the phone while driving to Manhattan from his Connecticut refuge. “But if you do too much reintroducing, you get away from the statement you want to make. I had to stick to my guns and write what my heart was telling me, not what I thought would be perceived as ‘hot.’ “
The album’s production credits back up that idea. Having endured an unproductive spell shackled to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint (“We had two different ideas of what the album should be”), Rakim has forgone the usual procession of super-producers drafted to secure him a pop radio hit. Instead, it’s a thoroughly underground—and, at times, unknown—roster, with Seattle’s Jake One and early-era Common cohort Y-Not the most recognizable names. “That was a conscious decision,” he says proudly. “I had to find producers that fit my normal form. There are a lot of hot producers that are out right now, but a lot of times, a track that’s good for Snoop Dogg or Lil Wayne is not good for Rakim.”
But The Seventh Seal only gets the musical formula half-right, bending to modernity by incorporating a slew of sung hooks. At his regal peak, Rakim’s songs were all about the verses—any concession to a chorus was an idle afterthought. “I’ve never been a big hook-oriented rapper—when I was doing my thing, you’d just sample a word or something,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll write three verses before the hook is even considered. I know I can always go out and hire someone to sing a hook.” But while 50 Cent (the other one) and Jay-Z have long since mastered the chorus as an art form, many of the refrains on The Seventh Seal are uninspiring. The 2009 incarnation of Rakim might be sermonizing about hidden Biblical secrets about to kick into effect any day now, but after three Tracey Horton refrains—plus more warbling from Destiny Griffin and Samuel Christian—you wonder how much of his faithful congregation will still be listening.
That’s not to suggest he has lost his lyrical touch. When recording the first single “Holy Are You,” Rakim surrounded himself with a range of religious tomes, all full of annotations and notes scribbled in the margins, to ensure his message was factually accurate. And on the rugged “How to Emcee,” he sounds magisterial as he reminds the world, “I wrote some of the illest rhymes ever put together/Soon as I make ’em, rappers take ’em/Analyze ’em for days and paraphrase ’em.” He’s right. And, tellingly, the far superior chorus consists primarily of more rapping.
Rakim says he wanted to “speak about the problems in the world today.” But you suspect those who need to hear his message most are happy guffawing along to Gucci Mane, while those who remember his peak will balk at Seventh Seal‘s attempts to sweeten the sentiment. Still, he vows that there’s another album coming next year, and that it will mark “a return to what raw hip-hop is.” Drop the coterie of crooners on chorus duties, and he might already be there.
Rakim plays B.B. King’s November 19