Thursday, 19 August 2010

The God Delusion

First post, old article (first published in The Word Nov 2009), let's see how this works.


The Seventh Seal


Time was when no one had to ask who the best rapper was. People had their individual favourites, those they loved for their unhinged charisma (KRS-One) or insurrectionary geist (Chuck D); but it was a truth universally acknowledged that for the full poetic possibilities, for a voice that moved like liquid and rhymes that fell from the ether, there was only one contender. And he went by the name of Rakim Allah, or God to his fans.

The skinny 18-year-old who grappled with the mic so dextrously on his first single (“it’s biting me, fighting me, inviting me to rhyme”) reinvented the street corner art. Others were more lyrically profound, but no one else made the act of rhyming in rhythm seem such an effortless, instinctive joy. The sense that rap had found its chosen one persisted well beyond his heyday (the four-album 1986-92 lifespan of his partnership with his DJ, Eric B). A first solo album, arriving in 1997 after a five-year silence but cannily including a bonus disc of past classics, sold well. But its successor, 1999’s The Master, flopped disastrously, underlining the fact that in rap, unlike rock, immortality is the preserve of the deceased.

Or Dr Dre. Hip hop’s production Midas signed its rap God to his Aftermath label - one of those dream teams that sounds so perfect it can only fail. Rakim wasn’t the first to discover that, fresh from Eminem’s runaway triumph, Dre’s eyes had grown bigger than his belly. But the extent of the fall out was telling. He left the label three years later with mooted, modestly titled album Oh My God still incomplete, citing creative differences. Rakim didn’t appreciate Dre’s attempt to remake him as a “dark side rapper” (as he phrased it in a recent interview), as if he was nothing more than a forerunner for 50 Cent. If the mumbling bullet-magnet - who’d taken the name of an infamous stick-up kid who allegedly once robbed Rakim himself - from Rakim’s old Queens streets was the new benchmark, where did that leave the old vanity signing?

Out on his own, which is where he’s remained ever since, turning up every few months since 2006 to promise his next album, now titled The Seventh Seal, would be here soon. Released a decade to the month since The Master, the album is notable for Rakim’s lack of pulling power. The Dre tracks are long-since junked. Nas, one of many ‘90s rappers who cast themselves in his image, never turned up for the promised collaboration, and even contributions from hardy perennials Akon and Busta Rhymes have disappeared somewhere between the August press playback and November promo copies. The only ‘guest’ of note is Gwen Stefani, who appears via a Don’t Speak sample on the closing track, maternal tribute Dedicated. It shouldn’t happen to a deity.

Commercially crippling though it is, the star-stripped nature of the album isn’t entirely for the worst. Tracey Horton - formerly a mid-‘90s rapper more notable for being called Pudgee Tha Fat Bastard than for his records – steps in where a plump-budgeted album might have boasted Akon or T-Pain, and delivers three choruses without once crying “locked up” or reaching for the Autotune. In fact, Man Above, where he threatens to break into Tainted Love, but freeze-frames on the “ohhhhh!”, is one of the album’s red-letter moments. Likewise Walk These Streets, which would’ve been a cue for clich├ęd gunplay in lesser hands, but emerges as a soul-charged statement of self-purpose.

But The Seventh Seal is held back by beats which wouldn’t have sounded far-sighted had they succeeded The Master by months rather than years. Neither in tune with the times, nor riding the wonky idiosyncrasy of a visionary like Dilla, this is the sound of a man unwilling to be dragged out of his comfort zone. The best moments (the lovely Put It All To Music or thumping How To Emcee) have a gnarly old charm, the worst (the wretched Psychic Love and prosaic Satisfaction Guaranteed) are simply stolid.

The exception is Holy Are You, which utilises a well-worn Electric Prunes sample, but covers it in a quiet storm of electronic fuzz. Rakim, never one to leave the lily ungilded, responds by playing up his messianic image while delivering a pantheistic lesson in all the major religions served with a side-order of mythology, ancient and modern (“A pharaoh in ghetto apparel, stay blinged-up/ Fort Knox display, a modern day King Tut”). Rakim was draped in gold for the cover of Paid In Full 22 years ago, but has long since been overtaken by a generation of platinum stars, many with a fraction of his talent. The Seventh Seal won’t register with a younger generation of rap fans who barely know his name, nor will it outrage the handful of purists and ageing admirers who await his every outing like the second coming. But both he and they deserve a little better.

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