Rakim | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Hip-hop quickly disposes of its heroes, but if any of the significant artists of its late-80s heyday is still unimpeachable, it's Rakim, who did more than anyone to elevate rapping to the level of poetry. He and his old DJ partner Eric B. ushered in a new era with Paid in Full (1987) and Follow the Leader (1988), on which Eric B. bathed his own lean, menacing grooves in unidentifiable sampled textures and Rakim brought a new level of seriousness to the role of the MC, ditching the exaggerated enunciation of old-school party music for a measured and minimal elegance of complex rhythms and sharp rhymes. Protracted contractual problems and an acrimonious split with Eric B. followed the release of Don't Sweat the Technique (1992), keeping Rakim out of the spotlight for the next five years, but his absence has only enhanced his mythic stature: various hip-hop publications have deemed his new release, The 18th Letter (Universal), an elixir for the music's ills. In reality the record breaks little new ground, and the various veteran producers, including DJ Premier and Pete Rock, lack Eric B.'s vision (the bonus disc of Eric B. and Rakim classics only reminds one of their unmatched potency). But Rakim's rhyming skills are undiminished; he avoids tired tales of gats, bitches, and beatdowns; and his intelligent and generally humanistic messages show that hip-hop can retain its urgency without resorting to gangsta cliches or cornball proselytizing. Thursday, November 27, midnight, Convent, 1529 W. Armitage; 312-559-1212 or 773-395-8660. Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rakim photo by Adger W. Cowans.

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