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When Rakim and Eric B. dropped their first single, “Eric B. Is President,” hiphop was dominated by shouters. Hardcore was LL and Run-D.M.C. blaring into the mike, folding their arms and grimacing on album covers. It was 1986, and the innocence of “The Birthday Party” and “Funk You Up” had been replaced by “Hard Times” and “Rock the Bells.” To paraphrase local rapper Sub-Zero, the new school of MCs turned “Rapper’s Delight” into a cataclysm.

Into this pool of rabid testosterone, Eric B. and Rakim nonchalantly tossed the now classic “President,” a cut totally devoid of machismo—no rage, no yelling, just a meek monotone flowing flawlessly over the Marley Marl-produced track. MCs were a rugged bunch, not the beer-swilling gun-toters of today, but they were rambunctious nonetheless. The stone-faced Rakim and his tempered contemplations seemed way out of place. In a recent interview, MC Shan, who engineered Rakim’s “My Melody,” recalled his initial impression. “What kind of rap style is that?” Shan remembered saying. “That shit is wack.”

But by the time Eric B. & Rakim’s first album, Paid in Full, dropped, it was clear that Rakim’s unflappable mode of utterance was a weapon. It was the fact that he didn’t yell that scared you; his cold and deliberate flow made him hiphop’s most believable MC. Rakim etched such a precise, realistic text that even when boasting preposterously, he could make it all sound like gross understatement.

Moreover, Rakim rarely wasted a word and could say in a few bars what it took other MCs whole verses to spit. While LL and Run-D.M.C. told you how bad they were, Rakim simply showed you. On “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em,” he rapped, “The prescription’s one every hour—now it’s a habit/You need another hit from the freestyle fanatic/Attention—follow directions real close/Keep outta reach of children, beware of overdose/Too many milligrams, but one made a iller jam/My rhyme’s just a rhythm of thoughts that kill a man.”

The fact that he was an enigma only compounded things. He rarely gave interviews, and in his videos he never smiled or grimaced. His DJ, Eric B., simply chilled in the background, either coldly cutting the record or stoically peering out from the screen. Natives of rapdom wondered who Rakim really was and came to the conclusion that he could only be a god.

By the early ’90s, Rakim had established himself as hiphop’s preeminent MC. Only Big Daddy Kane was ever even mentioned in the same breath, a comparison that no one would dare make today. But in 1992, when Eric B. & Rakim released their fourth album, Don’t Sweat the Technique, East Coast hiphop was on the wane. Its selling power was slipping, and its creative luminaries were in turmoil. X-Clan, EPMD, and Boogie Down Productions split up, while Public Enemy suddenly sounded stale. From the West came the hordes of gangsta rap, and the East simply had no defense. Then, just when hiphop needed him most, Rakim split with Eric B., disappeared from the scene, and left the mortals to their own devices.

Throughout the two CDs that comprise The 18th Letter/The Book of Life, there is the sense that something has gone rotten in rapdom. The second CD—a best-of collection—demonstrates how Rakim elevated rap writing from meager wordplay to literature and likewise raised MCing to the upper levels of oratory. But the first CD—all new material—features the master returning only to find his disciples betraying the gift. Skills have been traded for money, sex, and jewelry. (Although Rakim, too, addressed these subjects, he never betrayed his flow.) But The 18th Letter avoids the temptation of launching a lyrical jihad. The album prefers to lead by example and show new-schoolers the virtues of humility and lyrical fundamentalism.

Like most MCs, Rakim always bragged. But he also routinely bragged about his love for hiphop. He never explicitly said it, but his affection always oozed between the bars. On “Eric B. Is President,” the microphone seduced Rakim, despite his promises to the contrary. On his classic “Microphone Fiend,” rap was a drug that he’d been addicted to since childhood. Rakim saw hiphop as his master and himself as a junkie or a lovesick schoolboy. More than any other MC, he understood that he didn’t create rap—rap created him.

The new material shows how little Rakim has changed. On the title cut, he speaks not only to his own immortality (“From the days of the slave topics to the new age of prophets/As heavy as hiphop gets, I’m always ready to drop it”) but to hiphop’s as well (“Since the world’s metamorphosis and the planets kept in orbit/Turntables we spin awkward, but needles never skip off it”). “Remember That” is a less abstract assertion of the same principle. It intersperses hiphop’s embryonic years with Rakim’s own rap history. The cut longs for the days before MCs traded lyrics and flow for brews and blunts.

As a technician, Rakim remains peerless. On the first single, “Guess Who’s Back,” he weaves a weblike rhyme scheme into a dazzling but economic oral tapestry: “It’s the return of the Wild Style fashionist/Smashin’ hits, make it hard to adapt to this/Put pizzazz and jazz in this, threw cash in this/Mastered this, blast this, and make ’em clap to this.” Rakim’s lyrical palette features standard gat imagery (“It’s Been a Long Time”‘s “I sawed off mikes so words scatter like a rifle”) but also embraces the cosmic (the title track’s “Some of my rap patterns still surround Saturn”) as well as the Biblical (“Wit’ these explosives, I split seas for Moses,” from the same cut). His myriad references elevate the standard battle rap into a struggle for artistic perfection. No longer satisfied with ramming mikes down the throats of MCs, Rakim’s final battle is against the boundaries of his art. On “The Saga Begins,” he lays down his mantra: “No stoppin’ this, I’m droppin’ this wit’ hiphop in this/And when the topic gets topicless, then I’m writin’ the Apocalypse.”

It doesn’t hurt that Rakim enjoys the best production he’s had since Paid in Full. The semi-all-star squad headlined by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and DJ Clark Kent provides a plate of butter beats, some suited for head-nodding, others for rump-shaking. More importantly, each track is fitted for Rakim. The sinisterly mesmerizing keys that anchor “The Saga Begins” underscore Rakim’s equally entrancing ruminations. And the stirring strings and triumphant wails of “The 18th Letter” punctuate Rakim’s missionary message. The result is a balanced assault of verbal and percussive projectiles.

Even for a virtuoso like Rakim, The 18th Letter is a mighty undertaking. A five-year hiatus is an eternity in hiphop. Adapting is a crucial test that most rappers fail miserably. Melle Mel, Slick Rick, and Whodini have all demonstrated why, in hiphop, the phrase “comeback album” is virtually an oxymoron.

Moreover, in Rakim’s absence, a school of MCs has sprung up whose members hold him as their primary influence. The most prominent disciples include the GZA, O.C., and Nas—all of whom feature Rakim’s patented understated delivery. Thus, in a sense, Rakim is competing against himself. But The 18th Letter demonstrates that Rakim’s pupils, while gifted, have not advanced to his level. The album is a relaxed and meticulously crafted work that permanently delineates Rakim’s domain—that elusive place where excellence ends and mastery begins.CP