The 18th Letter
Nineteen ninety-seven was the perfect time for Rakim to return to the hip-hop scene. The current crop of New York street rappers — Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z — had all followed the trail blazed by Rakim. While other ‘80s pioneers had flows that weren’t adaptable to modern beats, The 18th Letter proves that Rakim’s style was perfectly suited to the era’s preeminent producers. Whether he’s working with the no-nonsense cuts of DJ Premier (“It’s Been a Long Time”) or Pete Rock’s smoky, stealthy jazz loops (“The Saga Begins,” “When I’m Flowin’”) Rakim’s voice is the hanger on which these beats are draped. He remains a commanding presence without resorting to swearing or sensationalistic crime tales. The listener believes in him because his words exude experience and wisdom. He explains his mission in “It’s Been a Long Time”: “I broke the code of silence with overloads of talents / My only challenge is not to explode in violence … In ghetto apparel, mind of a Egyptian Pharaoh / Far from shallow, thoughts travel like an arrow.” Ever the ascetic, Rakim practices hip-hop as if it were an ancient art form.