Rakim: The 18th Letter


The 18th Letter

WHEN PUBLIC ENEMY chieftain Chuck D broke two years' worth of microphone silence with his 1996 solo joint Autobiography of Mistachuck, he re-emerged with one hell of a thorn in his side. A leading architect of the blueprint for late-'80s hip hop, Chuck couldn't help but rattle on about his status as an aging pioneer, raging against the new generation of rap acts who hadn't properly inherited his hard-working ethic or hard-hitting vocab.

It's been an even longer hiatus for Rakim, another of hip hop's seminal father figures. Yet, while the rapper's much-anticipated The 18th Letter is rich with musical and literal references to his bygone heyday alongside DJ Eric B., he's got neither the time nor the taste for embittered retrospect. Titles like "It's Been a Long Time," "Guess Who's Back," and "Remember That" evoke a real nostalgia for the pre-B.I.G. era in New York hip hop. Yet "The Saga Begins" and the Big Apple head-nodder "New York" (produced with flair by DJ Premier) suggest there's more on Ra's mind than fond memories of rocking the Rooftop.

As before, pure poetry is paramount. While Rakim has never been one to shy away from themes of determination, authenticity, and Afrocentric awareness, he'd rather re-educate by example than play the martyred preacher. And in an age when lazy MCs depend on hackneyed beats, Ra's legendary skills remain fundamentally intact--particularly his talent for stretching canny metaphors and crafty rhyme patterns way beyond their minimum measure. "Never mind what the total gross is/I rip shows, stay focused/... spit flows to be ferocious/And with these explosives/I split seas for Moses," he assures on the title cut. And throughout, Biblical imagery, Egyptology, numerology, and a touch of bedroom epistemology are still pillars of style for this self-made microphone fiend.

Drum kicks and clicks come courtesy of assorted producers, including Premier, DJ Clark Kent, and piano-happy heavyweight Pete Rock. And each veteran frames this timely comeback (yes, you can call it a comeback) in his own light. The lesser-known collaborators--Nick Wiz, Smoke One, Father Shah--simply do their best to keep up.

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