Studio Theater: Rakim?s long-awaited LP wrings drama from digital sounds.

Hip-hop doesn’t embrace its legends the way rock does, which is why the Rolling Stones are on a never-ending world tour while Kurtis Blow is pressing up CD-Rs. Rakim’s status falls somewhere in the middle; though his commercial influence has gradually waned since his days revolutionizing rap’s sound with Eric B., a new Rakim album is still very much a big deal. Especially when, in the case of his latest, The Seventh Seal, it’s 10 years in the making and has cycled through a veritable all-star list of producers and guest MCs. Though the disc was originally intended for Aftermath, Rakim decided to release it independently after falling out with Dr. Dre, who reportedly wanted to take the album in a more “gangsta” direction. Rakim hasn’t traditionally been shy about speaking on street mayhem, but he sought to explore his spirituality on the new work, which may be why planned collaborations with Busta Rhymes, Akon, Styles P., and Jadakiss also failed to appear. No matter—The Seventh Seal succeeds as a rare substantive hip-hop album that manages to generate real heat. The disc’s title references Book of Revelation end-times teachings and man’s quest to gain knowledge of himself. “The Seventh Seal is about people being conscious of what they do,” Rakim told me, “and being conscious of their surroundings.” It features a number of fictional stories that are told in first person but are not necessarily autobiographical, including “Man Above,” which follows an ex-convict looking to God and attempting to reform himself, and “Working for You,” about a guy logging extra hours for the sake of his lady. The album’s most satisfying song, “Holy Are U,” is also Rakim’s most personal and direct discourse on spirituality. At its best, it addresses his status as hip-hop’s “God MC.” “Walk on water?” he raps. “Nah, neither did Jesus/It’s a parable to make followers and readers believers.” The song’s midtempo drum beat and layers of stinging, apocalyptic synth lines make it feel downright biblical, and producer Nick Wiz seems particularly in sync with Rakim throughout the work. The appropriately dramatic tunes always make room for Rakim’s flow, which is a bit less ­metaphor-crammed than his golden era output but equally well-crafted—and perhaps even more insightful. The Seventh Seal reconfirms Rakim’s status as a rap titan and, as Only Built for Cuban Linx…Pt. II did for Raekwon, also reaffirms his relevancy.

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