A quick caveat: The following does not necessarily represent my opinion. It is an attempt at an objective reconsideration of Rakim’s status as the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) per my previous post.
1. Undoubtedly, Rakim’s greatest influence on hip-hop has been the introduction of internal rhyme. Prior to the release of Paid in Full (1987), hip-hop rhyme schemes were rather simple and straightforward. As legendary deejay Grandmaster Flash correctly notes in his memoir The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash:
If everybody else’s raps were like nursery rhymes, Rakim’s were like Shakespeare… Before Rakim, MCs would rhyme ‘cat’ with ‘bat,’ or maybe ‘pretty’ and ‘witty’ if they wanted to get cute. Rakim rhymed polysyllabic words like ‘residence’ and ‘presidents.’ Before Rakim, people started and ended verses in complete thoughts. Rakim would leave you hanging with an idea, just to make it rhyme, but finish the thought in the next sentence. Before Rakim, most rappers would set up one rhyme per line. Rakim would load up entire verses with so many continuous rhymes, I’d have to listen to them three or four times just to catch everything. (216)
To exemplify Grandmaster Flash’s comments, one need only look at the lyrics of Melle Mel, his former collaborator in The Furious Five. Melle Mel, hip-hop’s first G.O.A.T., was a poignant if not complex lyricist. His verses from “The Message” (1982), hip-hop’s first magnum opus, are certainly direct and meaningful if not particularly intricate. However, a verse from “I Ain’t No Joke” (1987) shows how Rakim, just five years later, would elevate the complexity of the average hip-hop lyric with the use of internal rhymes.
Without question, Rakim did it very well. Arguably, he did it first (though, in hip-hop, the question of who did what first is always subject to debate). The question is, did he do it best? To give an unequivocal answer of “Yes” would mean ignoring the verbal barrage that is “Raw” by Big Daddy Kane, especially the original version featuring Kool G Rap, which was recorded in 1987. In fact, it would require ignoring much of Big Daddy Kane’s early catalogue, period, as Kane used internal rhyme just as well as, as frequently as, and, more importantly, much faster than Rakim did.
Am I saying Kane or Kool G Rap is a better emcee than Rakim? No. I am saying that the one innovation critics and fans usually attribute to Rakim–the use of internal rhyme–arguably is one for which he cannot claim sole credit. Furthermore, arguably, two of Rakim’s contemporaries, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap–both highly influential emcees in their own rights–used it as well as and much faster than Rakim did.
2. Rakim’s four albums with deejay/producer Eric B.–Paid in Full (1987), Follow the Leader (1988), Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990), and Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)–are hip-hop masterpieces. Most critics agree that Rakim gets better with each album, and there is little room for argument to the contrary.
Here is the problem: After breaking from Eric B., Rakim is far less prolific afterwards and fails to release an album that resonates with listeners the same way as his albums with Eric B. does. Furthermore, his catalogue post-Eric B. is not particularly extensive. Indeed, since 1992, Rakim has released only three full-length albums: The 18th Letter (1997), The Master (1999), and The Seventh Seal (2009). While his first two solo albums are relatively well-regarded, his most recent effort generally receives less enthusiasm from fans and critics (though, in fairness, much of the criticism is for Rakim’s beat selection and not so much his lyrics). One certainly cannot ignore Rakim’s reclusive nature or his record label issues (he speaks of his problems with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label here).
That said, there is something to be said for productivity and consistency, and in regards to the former, Rakim is outshined by quite a few of his contemporaries (Ghostface Killah, Guru, Kool Keith, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, to name a few). In regards to the latter, one need look no further than Jay-Z, who since his first album Reasonable Doubt (1996), arguably has been the most consistent hip-hop artist of the last decade, all while being especially prolific.The same could be said of Ghostface Killah, who has been both active and consistent since his first solo album, Ironman (1996) (indeed, one might be apt to say that Ghostface has improved with every album). Are four great albums, two good albums, and one mediocre album really enough to hold on to the status of G.O.A.T., especially when others have been more consistent?
3. By no means do record sales represent quality, but there is something to be said about a claimant of the G.O.A.T. title being able to move units. Even during his heyday with Eric B., Rakim has only had modest success in stores. Rakim only has one platinum album (Paid in Full) and two gold (Follow the Leader and Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em). In fairness, Rakim’s career peaked just as hip-hop was really achieving greater degrees of crossover success, and his five-year absence between 1992 and 1997 essentially meant missing out on connecting with a new generation of listeners.
However, what of Rakim’s alleged legion of fans from his heyday? Where was their support in 1997, 1999, and 2009? What does it say about the impact of the G.O.A.T. when those fans who are aware of his masterpieces in the late 1980s-early 1990s checked out during the latter half of his career? Certainly, one could argue that such is more a statement of fan loyalty than it is about Rakim’s abilities. Nonetheless, one has to at least consider the possibility that fans thought Rakim quite simply was no longer as good as he used to be.
4. Where were those fans of yesteryear? They were buying Biggie and Tupac albums. Perhaps nothing else signifies Rakim’s waning influence than the tremendous impact Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac have had on hip-hop in their relatively short-lived careers. Were Biggie or Tupac capable of Rakim’s lyrical dexterity? Not at all. However, are they the two emcees (along with Jay-Z) who have had the most influence on today’s generation of emcees? Unquestionably. After all, not too many of today’s emcees are rapping about 7s and crescents; they are rapping about “Party and Bullshit.” In short, while the 18th Letter was on the sidelines, hip hop’s aesthetics changed dramatically.
5. Of course, Rakim’s legacy and influence cannot be denied, primarily on those who are considered the great lyricists of today–Black Thought, Common, Eminem, Immortal Technique, Jay-Z, Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, etc. However, students eventually become masters, and oftentimes, students overtake their masters. Saying that the aforementioned are better than Rakim is, of course, an exercise in subjectivity. Nonetheless, to suggest that the aforementioned have advanced the form since Rakim’s last period of significance is not.
Lastly, ask yourself this (particularly if you are a hip-hop fan): Can you say with full certainty that Rakim is significantly better than the aforementioned? While it is fair to argue that Rakim is still up to par with today’s great lyricists, can anyone argue that he is better? Is there a growing likelihood that at least one or two of the above have actually surpassed Rakim?
Consider a basketball analogy for a moment: In Michael Jordan’s final seasons as a Washington Wizard, he was still one of the top players in the league. Despite being older, slower, and a bit more brittle, few could deny that–at any given moment–Jordan was still capable of greatness. However, he was no longer the best or most dominant player on the court. Jordan was practically incapable of guarding the league’s best scorer, Philadelphia 76ers shooting guard Allen Iverson. He certainly could not dominate opponents like then-Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal. Does this mean that Jordan was no longer the G.O.A.T.? Perhaps not. Does it mean that, at some point, someone comes along who makes the G.O.A.T. look older, slower, and brittle? Perhaps so. Just as that was the case for Jordan, it may likely be the case for Rakim.
(Photo taken from Rakim’s official MySpace page.)