I should have written about Rakim earlier. Given that the theme of this blog is lyricism and technical rap, well, Rakim is the Grandmaster of that. Prior to his debut in the underground hip-hop scene in 1986, rappers were dropping basic bars and rhyming the last word of each sentence. Masta Ace himself said in an interview for the How To Rap book that it was Rakim who showed the rap community that you could put more than one word in a line that rhymed together. Any other rapper would agree. This culminated in the MC technique called internal rhyming, of which Rakim is the Grandfather (see the 18th Letter below). Since he developed this technique, all rappers followed suit. You started seeing everyone from the likes of Big Daddy Kane to Big L dropping 5+ rhyming words in each bar and this changed the hip-hop game for good.
A couple more noteworthy points about this legend before I get into the tracks. First, unlike most upcoming rappers in the 80s who rose to fame through underground rap battles/freestyles, Rakim was among the first to showcase the possibilities of sitting down and writing intricately crafted lyrics, clever word choices, metaphors, etc. You clearly see how he was developing an entirely new style when you compare a Rakim track to, for example, an Eazy-E track from the same year. Second, Rakim was one of the first to use his new style and back it with an even different type of content form. He focuses on imagery, analogies, and metaphors to draw abstract content rather than generic gangster rap forms. He converted to Islam at age 16, and his track’s content span everything from religion and God to the universe and it’s meaning.
The 18th Letter
This track is Rakim’s hallmark exhibition of his lyrically advanced style. When I say he coined the practice of internal rhyming, I don’t mean just a few words per bar. Literally every word in the bar rhymes not only with the next word, but also the corresponding word in the next bar. And doesn’t just carry the rhyme over to the next sentence, he does this for up to 10 sentences at a time before changing the rhyming word. Next level shit!
Example. Pay attention to the number of internal rhymes and how long he keeps the end-word.
“Just when things seemed the same, and the whole scene is lame
I come and reign with the unexplained for the brains ’til things change
They strain to sling slang, I’m trained to bring game
History that I arranged been regained by King James
Go to practice, with tactics, when the track hits, theatrics
Women that look like actress the status of Cleopatra’s
Stacks of mathematics to feed yo asiatics
As I find out, what the facts is, its geographic”
Examples of Early Abstract Content Form
Very rarely did artists drop tracks like this in the mid-90s when this came out. The specific content form is not easy to pull off, as it describes non-concrete things and cryptic lyrics. In this case Rakim is describing about his quest to find God, but the message is abstract and carefully woven into the lyrics. Beautiful. Other artists which come to mind who are influenced by this style are Brand Nubian and MF Doom (who I will write about soon).
Eric B & Rakim
For lack of space, I did not talk about Rakim’s partnership with Eric B. Eric B is a DJ and connected with Rakim in 1985. They put out their first track, and Rakim’s debut song, in 1986 called Eric B is president. This track changed the game as Rakim’s style and wordplay was unheard of back then. In 1992 the Duo dismantled and Rakim has been solo ever since.