[18 November 2009]
Rakim Allah (who I’ll refer to in a number of ways throughout this review) will always be known as one of the best to ever do it. His legacy can withstand even the most deadly blows to an artist, from album delays, of which he has suffered many, to a less-than-dynamic stage presence. Although he’s never done it, the God MC could even make an ass of himself in a slew of interviews. And, depending on what he says, it wouldn’t really matter. His impact on hip-hop is basically unprecedented. Prior to his becoming the self-professed Microphone Fiend, rappers weren’t even the focus of rap songs. That’s not a diss, of course, just a known fact—the focus was primarily on the DJ and his turntables. But this Queens native (and a few other legends) changed that when he linked up with DJ Eric B. as a hungry 18-year-old spitkicker.
It is now 23 years later. Rakim, his fans, and hip-hop have all aged. Both on his own and with Eric B., the God MC has dropped a total of seven albums during that span. Almost all of them dropped within a more reasonable timeframe, though, of 12 years. That was a healthier, more stable era for hip-hop. Although albums were pushed back now and then, delays were never as prominent as they are now. And Ra’s latest, The Seventh Seal, is the perfect example of that. Anticipation for this album has peaked over and over and over. Dr. Dre went from being a major player to not appearing on the project at all. Like other almost-shelved records, this one also went through a name-change—its previous title was Oh, My God.
Then, in mid-July, a single appeared seemingly from nowhere entitled “Holy Are You”, produced by longtime Rakim collaborator Nick Wiz. And, although the beat was a little over-the-top with its huge synthesizers, it was well received. Not only did it display that Ra still had the ability to rhyme like the sage he is, but he was doing it with a sense of hunger. He flows flawlessly over Wiz’s bombast production and minces words and syllables like the God MC we all know and love. The hip-hop world—well, those of us still checking for him—couldn’t wait to hear what Rakim had planned next.
But a few months later, our appetites were only somewhat satiated by a less than stellar follow-up. “Walk These Streets”, featuring so-so rapper Maino and equally average crooner Tracey Horton, more or less lowered the expectations raised by “Holy Are You”. While not an awful song by any means, “Walk These Streets” was very confusing. It became clear through interviews that Ra chose Maino for a guest verse because he has faith in his ability. OK, that’s fair—though most will disagree. Rakim’s other reasoning was that he wanted to “keep it NYC.” Again, his statement makes sense in theory, but why would he not obtain a verse from a more talented, capable MC? Then there was Horton’s R&B-esque hook, which unfortunately foreshadowed a downfall of this entire record. The R&B/rap combination has begun to dwindle over the past few years. It might remain a staple of certain mainstream hip-hop acts, but Ra has never seemed like the kind of artist to abide by those rules.
The hope for The Seventh Seal remained, though, if only because of Rakim’s immense track record. But “Walk These Streets” made that hope wane and questions arose surrounding this record. Could he still deliver his hardcore fans, many of whom have been there since ‘86, the album they so desired? Could he brush off the haters who say he is too old (41) and thus out of touch? Could he remain positive after watching his album get delayed over and over?
No, he (disappointingly) could not. This record, though not awful by any means, is simply not up to the standards set by the God MC. It’s true that the aforementioned R&B hooks paired with above-average beats take this record done a few notches. These no-names, from Thornton to I.Q., aren’t the best vocalists and most of their hooks sound way too similar. Also, most of the production is surprisingly decent, except for the absolutely dreadful idea to sample No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” for album-closer “Dedication”. Hearing Rakim speaking in his deep, gruff voice over Gwen Stefani’s vocals is laughable.
And it’s primarily our host who is most to blame on here. You would assume and hope someone thought to throw water in his face or break out the smelling salts throughout his studio sessions. But, for whatever reason, that obviously never occurred. Instead, Ra sounds bored, perhaps even tired, across a majority of this effort. There is little enthusiasm from him in terms of his flow or voice, both of which remain static. The only exception comes on parts of “Message in the Song” when he awkwardly raps in double-time. It can be argued that he never was one to inject emotion into his words. After all, his gruff, somewhat-monotone voice is a bit of a trademark. And he was always able to maintain our intention with his lyrics and wordplay. But none of that really comes through on The Seventh Seal. Many of his topics are odd choices, such as the sex-filled “Psychic Love”. Or they are mere missteps like the weak storytelling heard on “Documentary of a Gangsta”.
In his defense, Rakim does slay all of “Holy Are You” and a handful of other verses. His quotables might have dropped in number, but until he decides to hang it up, he is still the Microphone Fiend. He remains the one who taught every rapper in the game today how to move the crowd. And, to repeat a previous sentiment, his legacy can never be tarnished, even by this painfully average record.