(7) Classic Sounds…

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If you came up in the same era as me or was raised anything like I was on hip-hop, then you know Eric B. & Rakim as the end all be all when it comes to Golden age beats and rhymes. You also know them as the single-handed creators of the lyric-dominated style of rap music that introduced a shift towards more laid-back yet hard-hitting production with diverse samples that laid the perfect backdrop to listen to the rapper’s verses without overpowering them. Whereas prior to their inception, the norm was to have beat-driven songs with extended mixes and short verses that carried into sparse, catchy chants. It was either that, or long jam session styled songs. Rakim and the Dj that he elected for President set the precedent for fluid yet evenly paced rhyme schemes delivered in a cool conversational cadence instead of a belted out party-hyping tone. Not only that, but this was the first time that lyrical content was so interlaced with braggadocio and intellectual and spiritual musings in the same breath, from a street-wise sensibility. This was the turning point; the genesis of the modern rap style. Having that said, It’s no wonder why Ra is referred to as the God Emcee. It’s not just his stance as a follower of the 5% school of thought. This is a moniker symbolic of his presence and iconic status.

You can see why that would make it hard to rate and review a classic work of his right? Well, I’m taking on that task and handling the ballsy move of reviewing the 3rd album by the duo. While many have their judgement clouded by the legend and general perception of Rakim, this doesn’t allow them to look at his body of work objectively. How dare I rate an album of his! It’s only right that I dedicate the 7th installment of the Classic Sounds segment to the man born under three 7‘s.

I bought this album on tape in ’98 (or was it ’99?) after reading an issue of The Source magazine where they revisited classic albums that deserved their notorious 5-Mic rating. This is obviously from a time when The Source was still highly valued within the hip-hop community as an epicenter of information and a well of cultural wisdom. I bought it on the premise that their system is usually infallible and had never let me down before. I was a huge Rakim fan and had purchased Paid In Full on the same notion. After listening to this album however, I immediately wished I had bought Follow The Leader instead. At least that one had my favorite Erc B. & Rakim song, “Microphone Fiend” on it.

The word on the street about this album is that it was a project thrown together by the label from loose recordings while the duo was on tour. Supposedly the lines of tension and differences were beginning to emerge between the rapper and Dj/producer, foreshadowing their eventual split after their final album together in 92/93. This was a catalyst for the two to allegedly just go ahead with the label’s project and take the money generated from it. The producer lined up to contribute to the main boardwork on the abum, Paul C, passed away during the making, which somehow lead to up and coming producer -and –soon-to-be-hip-hop -legend-himself, The Large Professor taking on the task. This part of the story is actually confirmed truth and a little known factoid in Hip-hop history as large Prof wasn’t appropriately credited back then for his work. What he brought to the table however, is pivotal, ushering in the early part of that decade’s fascination with Jazz and funk infused Hip-hop with mid to uptempo samples and subdued tones. From a time period when fans, casual listeners and journalists alike weren’t separating music by its coastal region and just enjoyed it for what it was, the production here managed to inundate a certain grit between it’s saxophones and horns, evoking a New York feel nevertheless. Maybe a great deal of that can truly be accredited to Rakim himself, who Conjures NYC by simply breathing on a track. You would swear that the R was from the deepest bowels of Brooklyn and not from Long Island as his menacing  cool pronounces itself all over his verses. In any case, the Production here gave Rakim new, denser ground to plant his rap seeds in, a good but not dramatic upgrade from the unpolished melodious boom-bap of the previous 2 albums.

Exhibit A; the album’s lead cut, “let The Rhythm Hit ’em”, Which can arguably be considered a 1990 version of the last album’s title track, “Follow The Leader” (seriously tho, try listening to both back to back) with its Hyper yet dark audio sound scape and introductory placement. As one of the dozen hip-hop songs to use Bob James“Nautilus”, this one grabs some of the most haunting parts and makes them into the stuff of hardcore rap fans’ dreams. Although he did give birth to the stream-of-consciousness type flow that became prevalent after this album and most notably mastered and redefined by Nas (who was deemed as the second coming of the R after he seemingly ‘fell off’), it’s apparent upon listening in depth that unlike his disciples, Rakim deviates, but never too far from a clear intent. So even tho he may sprinkle some philosophies of teachings from the Nation of the Gods and Earths in the midst of bravado, he always manages to pick up in time to return to his original point which ties into the chorus and title of the song. This is exemplified on this very track where Rakim rips through it with verses that use the beat as a metaphor for a weapon against wack rappers with lines like “You see me in 3-D, when I let the rhythm hit another M.C./ Lyrics made of lead, enters your head/Then eruption of a mass production is spread/when/ music is louder, full of gunpowder, microphone machinery when I see a crowd of…Party people pumping their fist – like this/ You hide in the back, thinking that I might miss”.

While he can no doubt carry each and every song on the LP with his lyrical prowess alone, the notable feature of this album in the Eric B. & Rakim timeline is the growth of basic musical complexity in the production. Prior to this, you’d never hear sunken-in grooves like the enveloping “In The Ghetto”.

This song is apart of the Holy collection of all-time favorite songs amongst Rakim fans and stans alike. It is a hip-hop quotable from the first line of verse 1, and is one of his most lucid and poetic joints. On this particular album, This is also 1 of only 2 songs where Ra breaks from his standard of assassinating weak rappers to speak on something more topical. I guess this would be easy to get away with on an LP that features 11 tracks, one being a less-than-amazing remix to “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em” with more of a funk influence, and another being the requisite Eric. B solo track (“Eric B. Made My Day”) where he just scratches for 2 minutes and change. I always thought those kinds of tracks were just album filler in the post-’87 world. I can’t think of too many people who actually want to hear the flow of an album interrupted by a random display of dj skills. In this case, given the rumored division developing between Eric and Ra, it can be assumed that this was included as a track for the sake of representing both parties, making the album seem fuller and of course tradition, being that one of these type of tracks appeared on the 2 albums before.

So 2 space-saver tracks, and only 2 topical songs on an 11 track album leaves 7 songs for Rakim to tell you about himself and his dj. And that he does. Make no mistake, The R is The R for a reason…He puts words together in ways that should make the average rapper smack his forehead asking why didn’t he think of that, sounding so effortless in execution. However, Ra does get quite repetitive on this album, lacing most of the 7 tracks here with references to hand grenades,  3rd eyes, arson and lighting up the competition. And while Rakim definitely has delivery, he doesn’t have flow so much as he has speeds – in this case being 2; fast or slow. There are no gears to Rakim, just tempos. He prefers to go for the more rapid-fire approach on most of the cuts, which may have been impressive and ground-breaking back in 1990, but he truly shines the most on this project when he takes it down a bit and lets the words marinate. He does this best on the aforementioned “In The Ghetto” and the slick “Mahoghany”, where he rides the drum and descriptively woos a young lady after a show over a clever use of a break from a classic Al Green song.

This is a return to form from earlier albums, mixed with the more soulful feel of this one, as the beat is stripped down, but contains just the right mix of sounds at key moments to make it sound full. This is also evidenced on the tracks “Set ‘Em Straight” and “Step Back”.  

It’s here, when the beats are more open and Rakim raps more steadily that the gems are found.  It’s almost ironic that the more even-paced songs are where you find the most content. It’s symbolic of how you can easily get lost in the redundancy and pacing of some of the remaining tracks – they’re almost interchangeable.

Even tho the production was a step – up and pioneering, it doesn’t mean the album is exempt from snoozer moments. The production itself, may be partially responsible for that effect. For the fact that the beats are subdued and bass heavy with jazz and funk tones, there’s an after-effect that leaves an underwhelming feeling. Couple that with Rakim’s penchant for fast raps and lack of versatility and after a while, it starts to feel like you’re waiting for something that never quite arrives. There’s joints like “No Omega” where Ra kills it with lines like “what’s the matter g? Check your battery/ go get charged up, then try to battle me/ You try hard but Die-Hard – you ain’t ever ready/ when they check your pulse, you’ll be dead as Freddy, but the beat is forgettable, then there’s joints like “Keep ‘Em Eager To Listen” where the lyrics and beat are equally just ok by the time you get to them towards the end of the album. As is the case with most rap songs that employed heavy use of horn samples, alot of the joints here don’t really stand the test of time and just sound dated, even as I listened to it in the 90’s! Late 90’s, but still the same decade.

Overall, this album is both crucial in the history of the duo so therefore more important than say Follow the Leader, but as a whole, it is their worst effort. And maybe because it comes from a lack of just that; Effort. If that is truly the case, it is reflective and visible to the die-hard fan, but still proof that even a lax work by Eric B. & Rakim is still better than the average rap album! This is still a classic album and 5-mic rated masterpiece that spawned important songs.

Besides the 3 singles, my favorite tracks on here are “Step Back”, “Run For Cover”  and “Untouchables”.  Ra really spits on the latter, and the beat on “Run For Cover” is just Hip-Hop to a Tee (pardon the wack intros before each clip – I’m restricted to YouTube here!).

Having that said, this album gets 8 Candles out of a possible

4812 or 16.

4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)

8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)

12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)

16(Classic all around)

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