When Rakim hit the scene in 1987 with Paid in Full, he was Michael, Jermaine, Marlon, and Jackie; Eric B., the DJ he nominated for president in the late '80s, was Tito. Back then, Rakim "held the microphone like a grudge," but he never stood still, skipping back and forth across the beat, carrying it with him. If you don't think he was influential, listen again to "Ain't No Joke" and hear how he combined the drill-instructor intensity of Chuck D with the slipperiness of Q-Tip; when The D.O.C. thought No One Could Do It Better, he was obviously referring to his uncanny imitation of Rakim. As he said, nobody beats The R, so stop yelling. Well, no one used to beat him: The title of his latest disc, The Master, would have been more appropriate a decade ago.
After he disappeared following 1990's Don't Sweat the Technique, Rakim finally returned in 1997 with his solo debut, The 18th Letter, and it was clear his skills hadn't suffered during the long layoff. If anything, the years had only made his cut-yourself-a-switch voice that much more commanding. But Rakim's golden throat can't save The Master; it often sounds as out of fashion as those wrist-thick gold chains Rakim and Eric B. sported on the cover of Paid in Full, trying to keep up instead of keep away. As it stands, "Long Island's own barbarian of the microphone" only managed to catch up to 1995, which is where "I'll Be There" steals its title, its Rap&B sound, and even a few samples from the duet of the same name that Method Man and Mary J. Blige took to the top of the charts. Lagging behind a hip-hop world where longevity is French for "five minutes" won't win Rakim any new fans -- or keep any old ones, for that matter.
Like Dr. Dre's recent comeback, 2001, The Master is often too self-referential, containing samples of past glories such as "My Melody," "I Know You Got Soul," and "Microphone Fiend," as well as a one-minute collage of people -- peers, apparently, though no names are listed -- extolling the various virtues of Rakim. And there isn't really a need for "State of Hip-Hop Interlude," 30 seconds of Rakim whining instead of rhyming. But that's not to say Rakim doesn't give himself plenty of opportunities to live up to his own legend. "All Night Long" sounds like it was recorded now instead of then, paring the music down to what sounds like a broken accordion and the stomps and claps of a step crew from Howard University. "When I B On That Mic," thanks to DJ Premier, does a good job of updating the spare sound of Paid in Full, barely there kick-snare beats allowing Rakim to show off his incomparable flow. Maybe Rakim should bring back Eric B.; at least he knew how to make him look good.
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