Rakim is consistently considered one of the greatest rappers; it’s either Paid in Full or Follow the Leader that’s considered his best album. I’m here to tell you that Follow the Leader is better simply because it has better singles, and that’s truthfully all that matters when dealing with this duo – Rakim doesn’t have a single great album in his name.
In fairness, the first six minutes or so are godly indeed. Rakim is known for inventing modern rap: fast flow, internal rhymes, literary devices, etc. and that’s best seen on the title track. I could really be here quoting couplets all day, so I’ll just note my favorites. There’s the alliteration of, “Music mix, mellow maintains to make / Melodies for emcees, motivates the breaks” and later, “A magnum as a microphone, murdering emcees” to well-placed rests that’ll have you focussing on either the couplet in full and how cool it sounds (ie. “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard / Flip it – now it’s a daily word”) or what comes after (ie. “This is a lifetime mission, vision a prison / Aight, listen – In this journey you’re the journal, I’m the journalist / Am I eternal? Or an eternalist?). And I haven’t mentioned Eric B yet, but he deserves mention. The production of “Follow the Leader” really is eternal; a guttural roar of a bass and strings that could cut you in half. It helps that Massive Attack cops the opening measures to make their own eternal “Unfinished Sympathy” a few years later (or am I the only one who hears this?). Oh, and I said the “first six minutes or so,” because the opening seconds of “Microphone Fiend” – a highlight for some unknown reason, probably because it sandwiches the album’s two best songs and people are too lazy to hit skip – is nice. Funky guitar and sleighbells, who doesn’t like that?
But on the rest of the album, Rakim will do one of the following things: copy his flow on “Follow the Leader” without ever matching its greatness, as on “Lyrics of Fury” and “Put Your Hands Together”; rap slower and worse, as on “Microphone Fiend” or just not rap at all. In other words, the real star of this show is Eric B. People talk a lot about the two samples in “Lyrics of Fury,” the drum break from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (which will soon be one of the most sampled drumming in hip-hop) and the guitar sample from Funkadelic’s “No Head, No Backstage Pass,” but the best thing isn’t either of those – it’s that terrifying shriek; you can hear RZA’s heart skipping a beat every time it happens. Meanwhile, the opening minute of “Put Your Hands Together” is the most epic thing that happens on the album outside of “Follow the Leader,” and the bass line of “The R” is the album’s best, juxtaposing well with the high-pitched synth line that comes in during the chorus (a sample of The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park”).
But unfortunately, every song that I haven’t mentioned sounds like they came out of a skating park; the sort with a disco ball that people go to nowadays ironically, if at all; welcome to the 80s, guys. This includes all the instrumentals – “Eric B. Never Scared,” “Just a Beat” (thank God for its shortness and cowbell, I guess) and “Beats for the Listeners” (which is just a Rakim-less “To the Listeners”). But it also extends to other songs that I mentioned, like “Put Your Hands Together” after the first minute. But let’s circle back to “Microphone Fiend.” Let’s talk about how Eric B. keeps nicking the beat from under Rakim or adding stupid backing vocals to try and make his frankly bad rhymes punchier. I mean, “So close your eyes and hold your breath (BREATH) / I’mma hit you with the blow of death (DEATH)?” LAME. And then, listen to that 90-second outro; listen to those drums! That’s exactly what people mean when they say “This has aged badly.” And yes, that is a legitimate criticism.
I don’t care about how influential an album is. It’s what’s inside that matters.