Why Eric B. & Rakim’s ‘Follow the Leader’ still sounds fresh 30 years later

Rakim in his prime.

Rakim in his prime. YouTube

The policies of the Reagan Administration didn't just cause human suffering on a macro scale—they forced hip-hop to grow up much faster than its founders could have projected. Making analgesic party music was difficult enough, but hip-hop now faced the added responsibility of pushing back on the White House's lies and acts of sabotage. Where was Rakim in all of this?

While not without a fixed ideology (he shouts out Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam on “The R”), Rakim—his generation's most respected rapper by an almost comical margin—was noticeably silent on the crises of the late ’80s. He didn’t join his peers in agitating for change, and if anything Rakim was better off for having sat that fight out.

Released this week in 1988, Follow the Leader, Eric B. & Rakim’s followup to their groundbreaking debut, Paid in Full, actually draws strength from its lack of significant social mission. Rakim exists slightly out of time, transgressing hip-hop’s edicts to serve a higher function. That's partly why Follow the Leader sounds fresh 30 years gone.

At a time when rap artists broadly were under pressure to adopt a gentler, or at least more unifying, tone, Rakim didn't demur—he doubled down. So what if rapping about pistol play is beneath refined discourse? “I wrote the rhyme that broke the bull's back/If that don't slow ’em up, I carry a full pack,” he snarls on the iconic “Microphone Fiend.” The genius of Follow the Leader is how cavalierly it tramples the orthodoxy of the moment. Rakim is a supercilious braggart, concerned only with “running out of breakbeats,” and he makes no effort to hide or repent for it.

It wasn’t Rakim's sharper-than-thou wit that made him the most effective tormentor hip-hop has ever known. Other rappers (KRS-One comes to mind) had an instinct for the jugular; Rakim preferred to passive-aggressively needle his prey. He was good at this, and he knew it: Listen closely and you can hear the thinnest trace of self-amusement in his stiff-lipped monotone. Sometimes he would offer mocking encouragement: “Clap your hands! You won a trip!” he sarcastically beams on Follow the Leader's title track. “The price is right; don’t make a deal too soon! How many notes? Can you name this tune?” There are dozens of billboard-worthy couplets on Follow the Leader sure to get under your skin.

Rakim's voice is an amazingly durable instrument, and he can rhyme over just about anything. Follow the Leader throws a lot at him—mischievous slap bass, surfy guitars, disco-style violins—but he never wilts or second-guesses himself in the face of the unfamiliar. Rappers love to flaunt their street IQs—they want us to think they're too wily and alert to ever let fear overcome stealth. In Rakim's case, that's not bullshit theater or overweening machismo. Nothing fazes him.

It's never been enough to rap cleverly and with care. It’s never been how you rap; it's what you rap about that is always given first priority. To get along, a rapper needs servility to the arbiters of what is and isn't rhetorically acceptable.

Rakim was expected to remonstrate against white power brokers in politics and the media as others were doing at the time. Instead we got Follow the Leader, a chest-puffing disavowal of the usual talking points. Only 20 when Follow the Leader dropped, Rakim understood what many rap fans still don't: There is value in braggadocio. Those of us who fail to grasp that are no better than Tommy Trucker, the huffy, drooling neighborhood sucker that Rakim eviscerates on “Musical Massacre.”