Rakim wasn’t prolific exactly, but he is the lyricist’s lyricist. Rakim’s delivery was laid back almost to the point of being phlegmatic, but his flow was utterly untamed, completely demolishing the way hip-hop was done previously. His jazz background, both as a saxophonist and an enthusiast came through verbally.
Chuck D once said that hip-hop wasn’t music, it was vocals over music, but I’ve always viewed hip-hop as a form of percussion. Take away the lyrics, and the voice becomes its own instrument, and in hip-hop it’s constantly soloing. Inspired by Theolonius Monk, Rakim’s flow is tight but free at the same time, unconstrained by bars or measures. Rakim was able to accomplish his revolutionary rhyme scheme by writing his rhymes in columns at times, as opposed to left and right.
Rakim provided more than jazz. There was strong spiritual element that is basically replicated by Wu-Tang and referenced by more rappers than you can count. He isn’t the only rapper to introduce the Quran and 5% concepts to hip-hop, but he was one of the first, and maybe the best. His look from Dapper Dan changed hip-hop fashion. Once Rakim came out, everyone wanted to be cool.
Old school hip-hop is fun. It seemed a lot more diverse too, there’s a sort of energy that you can’t replicate. But the mic skills are pretty dated. Rakim is one of only a couple reasons why that changed. He didn’t make a lot of material, (perhaps his unique preparation kept him from too much output) but what he did has held up rather well. I know one of my acid tests for golden age MCs is seeing if they get eaten on their more modern guest spots.
Rakim is still a beast. It’s a pity that’s been squandered, the 2000’s saw a lot of albums that didn’t come out, and its especially hard that his work with Dr. Dre (a good fit, stylistically, but probably not temperamentally) was abandoned. A new generation missed out his Rakim, aside from some choice guest spots. The sad irony of Rakim is that this generation doesn’t even know that nearly all of their favorite artists rep the same guy.
If there were a movie that best described The Artist Formerly Known as Common Sense, it would be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His laid-back, almost conversational flow, overt spirituality and social conscience – coupled with his affinity for hand-knitted clothing – deftly mask the fact that he’s a lyrical monster, capable of literally freestyling lesser rappers under the table.
Since the release of his debut album Can I Borrow A Dollar? in 1992, Common has always come through harder than a Chicago wind. At that time, however, his unique style was overlooked, and had that trend continued, he might have ended up on our most slept-on list, despite almost single-handedly putting the Midwest on hip hop’s radar.
Then, on his follow up Resurrection, a little song about a lost love cemented his place among hip hop’s elite.
Maybe you’ve heard it:
The metaphoric re-telling of the story of hip-hop earned him massive critical acclaim. It also earned him the ire of West Coast super-group Westside Connection. Ice Cube, at that time one of the Left Coast’s most prolific MCs, thought he wanted a problem with Common.
He was wrong.
No one has come at Common since.
In the years that followed, Common continued to elevate his game, churning out the classics One Day It’ll All Make Sense and his breakthrough, Like Water for Chocolate. It was this album that added commercial success to the critical acclaim Common had enjoyed for so long. That success was followed up with a bit of a misstep with Electric Circus, but was quickly corrected on Be and Finding Forever. He’s also had a misstep since his classic collaborations with Mr. West were released – Universal Mind Control left more than a few of his fans wanting – but redeemed himself on his follow-up, The Dreamer/The Believer and has many waiting to hear his what he has to say next.
Common, along with The Roots, Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli, led the revival of socially conscious hip hop during an age when hip-hop was divided between chest-thumping gangsta rap and braggadocio-filled commercial pop rap, and proved that you could sell records and still have something to say.
He’s also consistently proven another point during his long and illustrious career: Never sleep on a dude wearing crochet pants.