Saturday, 7 July 2007

'97 mentality


exhibit j

it's 7/7/7, so it looks like rakim lied to us about the release of the seventh seal - his first solo album in eight years. boo. at least he managed to put out a record in 1997, though not a particularly good one.

i'm in two minds about rakim: of course, his run of albums with eric b was flat-out incredible - he raised the bar for MCing in terms of technique and content, and gave rap a whole new vocabulary while doing it. he was, more or less, the first MC to rap in detail about the creative process and the role of the rapper, rather than just boasting about his mic skills or his guns. by casting himself as mystical poet and cultural prophet, he aspired to timelessness – thus while the influence of chuck d’s political bluster and krs one’s ‘edutainment’ waned as the 90s went on, rakim remained relevant. dropping his name and citing him as an influence was a short-cut to artistic credibility: when nas broke out he was proclaimed the ‘new rakim’ (though he took just as much from kool g. rap). in an early manifestation of his hip-hop is dead schtick, nas used a track on street’s disciple to tell rakim’s life story.

following the end of the golden age, as listeners migrated towards more immediate sources of gratification, rakim retained his artistic authority by cultivating an air of detachment. insofar as that meant staying above beef, not putting out half-assed verses on every latest remix, not flooding the market with aimless mixtapes, not hopping onto musical bandwagons, not cashing in on nostalgia, that's commendable and remarkably restrained - by contrast to krs one on many of those points.

but none of this explains why rakim is still considered worthy of the number one (or top 5) spot. every other rapper on those sorts of list has been debated, slated, re-evaluated, and pronounced creatively dead at some point, but folks still rush to lap up rakim's tossed-off verses promoting trainers or video games like they were new salinger novels. rakim is a cultural blind-spot, an unimpeachable presence. if anybody actually reads this blog, they'd probably have a go at me for questioning him. compare rock’n’roll: sure, there’s an elevated canon there, too, but it only took twenty years before the first wave of punk tore down the poll-topping likes of sgt. pepper and dark side of the moon with deflating wit and youthful aggression. rap’s been around for three decades. is every MC fated to battle for second place, behind a rapper who’s managed two pretty dull albums in fifteen years?

i haven’t listened to 1997’s the 18th letter since, erm, 1997. it’s not as if high-profile producers were unwilling to offer their services: premier, pete rock and clark kent all got involved. 1999’s the master was less stellar, but still had work from premier, kent and the 45 king. the beats on these records were perfectly nice, as were the rhymes – but both were a little too reserved. that’s why teaming with dr. dre, in some senses an odd choice, initially made so much sense: perhaps dre, like eric b., would have the confidence to make arresting, aggressive beats as a foil to rakim’s liquid flow? but aside from a few tantalising tracks (most notably ‘addictive’ by truth hurts), nothing came of the collaboration.

i hope the seventh seal gets a release (likewise with raekwon’s cuban linx II – another project apparently blighted by association with aftermath). i also hope it proves me wrong, and establishes once and for all rakim’s uncontested right to the crown. But for now, ingmar bergman’s seventh seal still tops the poll as best seventh seal ever:

Rakim – ‘The Saga Begins’ (produced by Pete Rock)

Rakim – ‘It’s Been A Long Time’ (produced by DJ Premier)

More fun:

Buy The 18th Letter


Jon Baines said...

informative, witty, provocative, what-have you as always - but an arithmetical glitch here, non, mr hat?

"it only took twenty years before the first wave of punk tore down the poll-topping likes of sgt. pepper and dark side of the moon"

Ass Hat said...

dang. true enough. twenty years after the birth of rock'n'roll before those smelly punkers arrived to poke fun, i meant. unless you count the sonics and the monks.

but look: 10,000 hits! the more people look at it, the truer it becomes.

Passion of the Weiss said...

Truth be told: I've always found Rakim a bit overrated. Great for 1988 and unimpeachably important but sometimes it feels a little too much like group-think. As though, you can't have an opinion on hip-hop unless you think every line Ra drops is gold.