New York is a city under construction. People liken the idea of “new” to fresh, and “old” is often considered obsolete. This can be seen in the city’s physical development as people ignore history to make way for the future, tearing down or renovating buildings for a more modern appearance rather than paying attention to their rich cultural heritage.
A similar attitude exists in the world of hip hop, which is why Shawn Carter (aka. Jay-Z), 37, claims “30 is the new 20” on his new album Kingdom Come. Jay-Z is doing everything in his power to stay on top – not an easy task as he ages. Normally, when hip hop artists reach a certain point, usually their mid 30s, fans start to label them “old school,” implying that hip-hop, in a larger context, has left them behind.
Born William Michael Griffin, Rakim first found success at the age of 18 alongside Eric Barrier (Eric B.) on the hit record “Eric B. Is President” off their full-length debut, Paid In Full. After three innovative albums with Eric B., Rakim began a solo career, releasing two albums in the late ‘90s: The 18th Letter (1997) and The Master (1999). Although The 18th Letter received acclaim from critics, The Master was considered a step backwards for the lyrical prophet.
With his biggest success left behind in the mid-‘80s and no new albums released this century, it would be fair to assume that Rakim has faded with the times, falling and into the “old school” category like so many before him. But, from the second he emerged in front of a packed B.B. King’s, the rapper rendered that label irrelevant, spraying the wall-to-wall crowd with furious lyrics. With his name spelled out in graffiti behind him, Rakim spit the words to “It’s Been a Long Time” off The 18th Letter, then proceeded to kick knowledge with well-known tracks like “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “You Know I Got Soul.” As he worked through the songs, he ran from one side of the stage to the other, feeding off the energy of the crowd.
The multi-generational audience attempted to sing along to his free-flowing lyrical tirades. Some were able to keep up with the “R”, but most just got tongue tied. With DJ Technic replacing Kid Capri on the cuts, Rakim’s prowess was put to the test. Following the beat jockey closely, he jumped quickly from song to song.
Of course, things did slow down towards the middle of the show, as a crew member brought the rapper a chair and a new pair of sneakers. During the next few songs, he opened up to the audience, discussing the passing of his mother last year, and of his aunt the week prior to the show—he described them as the two most important women in his life.
“It’s not where you’re from, but where you at,” Rakim preached before bringing back that old New York rap style with “In the Ghetto” off 1990’s Let The Rhythm Hit’em. He finished the show with “Mahogony,” a tune for the ladies, “Juice (Know the Ledge)” for the fellas, and “Eric B. Is President” for everyone in between.
As Rakim mesmerized the crowd for more than an hour, it became apparent that he’s on the road less traveled—a path where compromising one’s skill in order to compete with higher-selling, less-talented artists is out of the question. Rather than ignore hip-hop’s history, (or demand that its founder’s adapt), today’s youth should take the time to appreciate living legends like Rakim—after all, they paved the way for artists like Jay-Z. Some people thought hip-hop wouldn’t last more than five years, but now it’s something a father can teach his son about. And we should be teaching, and learning from, the past. Just imagine how disappointing it would be if New York City decided to tear down Grand Central station because it looked too “old school” for the modern age.