Follow the Leader (Expanded Edition)

Follow the Leader (Expanded Edition)

Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 debut, Paid in Full, introduced millions of listeners to Rakim’s calm and unflappable rhyme style—an approach influenced by the pirouetting structures of jazz. It marked a major stylistic leap for rap, and soon afterward, the Greatest Rapper Alive had technicians like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Slick Rick coming for his crown. That might explain why Eric B. & Rakim’s 1988 sophomore album, Follow the Leader, shows no mercy. Rakim’s attitude toward his new competition is made clear on songs like “Follow the Leader,” “Lyrics of Fury,” and “No Competition”—tracks that have the venomous attack of battle raps, but that create universes in their imagery and pacing. After the success of Paid in Full, the duo moved from 4th & B’way Records to MCA (Rakim would later claim it was the first million-dollar deal in rap history). Though a tectonic-shifting monument, Paid in Full was full of tracks written and recorded in a weeklong blur at New York’s Power Play Studios. For Follow the Leader, the duo got more time and money—and the resulting album was both more assured and more finely crafted. The title track (and lead single) is a sinister, orchestral bit of gothic-funk, one that finds Rakim displaying his talents for both giddy alliteration (“Music mixed mellow maintains to make/Melodies for MCs, motivates the breaks”) and assonance (“I can get iller than ’Nam, I kill and bomb/But no alarm, Rakim’ll remain calm”). “Follow the Leader” is a relentless track, one that got a mainstream boost when its video opened the 1988 pilot of Yo! MTV Raps—the show that served as hip-hop’s ambassador to the suburban living rooms of America. The album’s second single, “Microphone Fiend,” is a colorful expression of Rakim’s addiction to rhyme (“After 12, I’m worse than a gremlin/Feed me hip-hop and I start tremblin’”). And “Lyrics of Fury”—a merciless battle rap Rakim once described as his “horror movie”—is full of VHS-era references and acrobatic feats of MCing: “The scene of the crime every night at the show/The fiend of a rhyme on the mic that you know/There’s only one capable, breaks the unbreakable/Melodies unmakeable, pattern unescapable.” Follow the Leader became Eric B. & Rakim’s first album to hit the Top 40. But, more importantly, it left a mark on American popular music that transcends genre. Their songs have been covered by rap-metal stalwarts Rage Against the Machine (“Microphone Fiend”) and trip-hop trailblazer Tricky (“Lyrics of Fury”). Meanwhile, musicians Jonathan Hay, Benny Reid, and Mike Smith covered the album in its entirely for Follow The Leader Re-Imagined as Jazz..., an experiment that ended up spending 11 weeks atop the Billboard Jazz Album chart.

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