For rap as an art form, the emergence of Rakim is comparable to the first color film, or the invention of electricity, or the Atom bomb. Even though his seminal record of influence, Paid In Full with the trusty though not amazing Eric B, came out in 1986, Rakim’s rapping sounds about 10 years closer to the present than anything else from that era. Full of phrases that flow over the margin, invigorating aggression and grit, and an earnest cleverness, Rakim’s style still dazzles more than many MCs of this era who have the advantage of succeeding so many more years of hip-hop innovation. In honor of the groundbreaking debut’s 27th birthday, we’ve decided to give it a spin, and let the God MC’s greatness soak in, track by track.
1. I Ain’t No Joke
As dated as the Casio drums are, the jazzy sax loop does well to compliment the R’s off-kilter flow (just imagine how this sounded to a world that was used to The Beastie Boys and Run DMC) that he recently explained was derived from John Coltrane’s solos. Rakim lands a number of sly, poetic haymakers, particularly showing out on the second verse’s opening: “I got a question as serious as cancer / Who can keep the average dancer / Hyper as a heart attack…” The verses here are packed with such flavor–Ra even invents the word “imaginate,” which makes the perfect kind of sense you don’t question, you simply nod.
2. Eric B. Is On The Cut
Paid In Full was the studio debut and life investment of Rakim Allah and Eric Barrier. Do you know of any rap album where an artist or group, let alone an unproven one, was willing to leave the second track entirely for scratching? What?! Even though Rakim is clearly the frontman, and the member infinitely more praised through history, he still shares the album rather evenly with his DJ. After all, it isn’t “Rakim & Eric B” on that cover.
3. My Melody
So after a hookless barrage of rhymes and an all-instrumental-and-scratch cut, we make it to “My Melody,” the head-nod inducing, nearly seven-minute demonstration of Rakim’s mastery of rhyme. The God MC spits verse after seemingly endless verse of fluid funk; listen to the way he spells his name in the first verse, “My name is the R / A K I M not like the rest of them, I’m not on a list.” Not only did he speed up by almost double when hitting that second line, but he also threw in an internal rhyme before moving along. Not like the rest of them indeed. Eric B scratches the title for a hook, and this one winds up equal parts clinic and celebration.
4. I Know You Got Soul
In the first 16 or so bars, Rakim shows off what feels like 50 different flows, all custom made to fit the bouncy, playful beat of “I Know You Got Soul.” After inviting us in with some simpler rhymes about how we should “follow the leader,” dance, or clap our hands, Ra gets a bit more poetic, spitting lines that were eventually borrowed by Mos Def: “I start to think and then I sink / Into the paper like I was ink / When I’m writing, I’m trapped in between the lines / I escape when I finish the rhyme…” That there is the reason why Rakim was lauded as coming from another universe of MCing, and the reason those in 1994 saw a young Nas as his second coming.
5. Move The Crowd
No beat on Paid In Fullis chunkier, stranger sounding, more ’80s, or full of flavor than “Move The Crowd.” The stiff, ridiculously heavy bass, triumphant horn loop, and that unorthodox snare snap–the beat almost shines as bright as Ra. Eric displays his best scratching of the entire album as well, crafting a solid title-based hook. Rakim also notably shouts out Allah and drops some 5% knowledge about his 360 degrees.
6. Paid In Full
The title track is also the most lasting hit of the record. While this might be because of the inviting, minimal beat, driven by a now iconic but almost unassuming bass line, it’s more likely because of the pure poetry of Rakim’s rhymes, and just how well that intersected with his particularly sing-songy, melodic flow here. Every day, a few more rappers of varying ability quote and paraphrase that opening bar, “Thinkin’ of a master plan…/ ‘Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand,” and not once has anyone followed those lines with anything that matches the pure, crisp summation of Rakim’s life that follows. Self-mythologizing is one of rap’s oldest traditions, and “Paid In Full” has many of the best examples–“I start my mission, leave my residence”–as well as some unprecedented wordplay–“Don’t nothing move but the money.” Rakim plays parts both enlightened and threatening with confident ease.
7. As The Rhyme Goes On
No one, no one, rhymed stuff like “mix and” with “quick sand” in 1986. No one had metaphors/similes like “I draw crowds like an architect.” Rakim’s attitude and prowess come across on full display here again, and somehow he pulls off spelling his name out for the second time on the same album: “I’m the R, the A, to the K I M / If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?” You may recognize that cadence from Eminem‘s “The Way I Am”; the sheer number of legends to pay respects to the God MC, and this album in particular, is simply astounding.
8. Chinese Arithmetic
Another instrumental cut! Out of nowhere, Eric B comes in playing around with the melody that is for some reason regarded as the sound of China, and gives us some sort of repetitive, albeit pretty dope, scratches, mixed in with some wild sounds. What is that water-pouring effect doing there though? The track is a bit of a mess, an unseemly sign of the times that, if anything, reminds us just how ahead of its time the rest of the album was.
9. Eric B. Is President
“Thank you, DJs” a recorded voice says, bolstering the support for the disc-jockey community that we’ve already heard throughout the LP. Rakim goes particularly wild with the flow on the second verse, and is matched by some funky organ stabs. The way Ra subtly plays with his inflection and where the linebreak cuts off his phrases is just nuts. Check out an extended quote.
But can you detect what’s coming next from the flex of the wrist
Say indeed and I’ll proceed cause my man made a mix
If he bleed he won’t need no band-aid to fix
His fingertips sew a rhyme until there’s no rhymes left
I hurry up because the cut will make ’em bleed to death
But he’s kicking it cause it ain’t no half stepping
The party is live, the rhyme can’t be kept in-
Side, it needs erupting just like a volcano
It ain’t the everyday style or the same old
10. Extended Beat
The God went out on such a high note on “Eric B. Is President” that he leaves the whole last cut to E to play a little more “Move The Crowd.”
In conclusion: Sure, Paid In Full is full of wack ’80s sound effects and every now and then Rakim says things like “I drop science like a scientist,” but for the majority of the album, this man nonchalantly reinvents the way the hip-hop weapon can be wielded more times than even he can count. Wish this classic a happy birthday–it’s still aging well.
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