The late ’80s represented an interesting fork in the road for rap music, as it had firmly (and finally) made its way from the Bronx to Manhattan largely because of Fab Five Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa. Up to this point there were primarily two schools of thought as far as the music went: go the Def Jam route and seek some levels of authenticity, or go the have-fun-and-party-all-night pop style of music—both of which had braggadocio as a connective tissue. To be clear, this happens to pretty much every genre of music over the last 100 years: the music begins as a creative output, then it gets molded into something entertaining, then it becomes about sex and women and love, then it gets serious, and then the circle repeats again. Rap was becoming a more serious art form and artists were now seeing producing an album as a longform statement (previous to this, doing shows was more preferable than recording an album). By 1987, rap was starting to grow into real poetry and journalism set to music and the two giants of this movement were Public Enemy, and Eric B. & Rakim.
Whereas Chuck D’s voice was unrivaled in its authority and professorial knowledge, Rakim fills in every other gap. He has a voice that cuts through the bullshit. He sounds wiser beyond his years. He modeled his vocal delivery and cadence in a way that was influenced by Coltrane’s syncopation. He was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. You add all of this together with Eric B.’s DJ skills and Marley Marl’s production wizardry (Marl cracked the code with the 808 drum machine that indescribably changed hip hop’s sound) and the debut album Paid in Full became an instant landmark album. The title track is raw and catchy, and even though Rakim doesn’t rap for the full track, his presence and voice is simply powerful and demands one’s attention. It is fitting that Rakim’s influences come from jazz, as it and hip hop are the two genres that are distinctly American—the two genres that were made here, that changed our culture wholesale, and spread throughout the world like wildfire. Every artistic movement requires an artist to reflect a reality in such a way that it cuts across race and class lines, and Rakim helped craft hip hop into a sound and style that people far removed from the streets could understand. He helped shape language, as icons have the power to do.