The best description I’ve ever seen of Rakim’s voice comes from the Spin Alternative Record Guide, which was pretty much the Bible for aspiring teenage rock critics in the ’90s. In that book, James Hunter wrote that Rakim’s “smoking tone implies danger rather than constantly dressing up in it.” That’s pretty much it. Rakim is one of the general-consensus greatest rappers of all time, and he carries that distinction for plenty of reasons: The way he helped develop writerly internal-rhyme dynamics, his early-adapter embrace of Islamic mysticism, his deadeyed stare. But the greatest gift he ever gave the world was that voice, a matter-of-fact rasp-mutter that burned its way into your brain the second he finished uttering a single line. On almost all his greatest songs, he rapped entirely about rapping, but he didn’t need to convince anyone that he was great at it; it was right there in every implacably confident bar. Alongside his DJ and discoverer Eric B., Rakim had a great four-album run, followed by a decade or so of projecting ridiculously cool elder-eminence intensity whenever he showed up for a cameo somewhere. And Paid In Full, the album that started it, turns 25 tomorrow. Let’s talk about it for a minute.
Rakim’s first verse on “I Ain’t No Joke,” his first album’s first song, is all about breaking microphones as soon as he gets done rapping, something he claimed to do because he didn’t want anyone to get onstage after him and fuck up the vibe he’d created. In that Spin book, Hunter writes that “I Ain’t No Joke” was the duo’s stand against hokey joke-rappers like the Fat Boys, who were, at that moment, perceived as the greatest threat against a developing artform. Rap, the way these two guys envisioned it, was ideally a haven for cool, calm, serious technique, and that’s exactly what they brought all over Paid In Full.
Truthfully, Paid In Full isn’t my favorite album from the two of them, though it is the agreed-upon classic. On later albums, they’d play around with lusher, deeper sounds, like the miles-deep Al Green drum-ripple that runs through the Don’t Sweat The Technique love song “Mahogany,” quite possibly my favorite thing they ever did. And we hear snatches of that musical sophistication on Paid In Full, like the great insinuating floating whistle on “My Melody” or the effortlessly funky chintzy keyboards on “Move The Crowd.” For the most part, though, the music was all rudimentary and occasionally unfriendly 808 slap. The instrumental tracks on the LP are straight filler, and one of them, “Chinese Arithmetic,” is downright irritating. Still, the production here is generally sharp, especially by the standards of the era. There are plenty of deft little musical touches, and you notice them when you’re listening for them, but the overwhelming impression you get from it is boom-clap. And it’s sparse by design. This first album existed to introduce Rakim, to give him a blank canvas to blow minds.
Paid In Full comes from the pre-punchline era, and even Rakim’s best lines on it don’t necessarily come across fully on paper. “I’m the intelligent wise / On the mic, I will rise / Right in front of your eyes / Because I am a surprise” — that looks a little silly written out, but Rakim makes it work by delivering it as the coolest thing anyone has ever said. That that coolness resonated. Paid In Full wasn’t a gigantic commercial success when it arrived, but the figure that Rakim cut was one that immediately established him as a legend of pure musical badassery. I didn’t hear Paid In Full until 10 or more years after its release, when I was doing one of those trips through the canon that you do when you’re getting serious about being a music fan. And the first thing that struck me about it was how many of the lines I’d already heard, repeated or referenced by other rappers or chopped-up into split-second bursts of language sampled on British rave tracks. (British acid house producers loved Rakim.) It’s an album that established itself in musicians’ collective memories, and it probably bored its way in because it’s the purest, simplest presentation we ever got of that Rakim god-flow.
So: You guys. Favorite Eric B. & Rakim track? Favorite rap album from the era? And were you seriously annoyed when James Murphy pronounced Rakim’s name as “Rakeem” on “Losing My Edge,” or was that just me? Let us know it the comments section, and let’s all listen to some tracks.