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REVIEW: Rakim – The Seventh Seal

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“Rappers cross-over. They dead.” Rakim returns to testify that he is a man alive with work to do on The Seventh Seal, his new album released on his own Ra Records label. Always a man of uncompromising vision, non-believers are presented with Ra’s modern Hip-Hop gospel soaked in Godspeak. Sometimes obscure but never unobtainable, this new disc was easy to find at the Church of Best Buy for a ten dollar tithe.

Forty seconds into the first track “How to Emcee” Rakim’s delivery and presence emerge as that of brand new emcee freshly delighted with word play and tightly crafted rhyme schemes. What should be surprising coming from a pioneer decades deep in this music is no surprise from Rakim, who is undoubtedly among the finest emcees ever to grace the booth and a master of original re-invention. He is hella people’s favorite for a reason.

Production is provided by a current cast including Needlz, Jake One, and Nick Wiz. It is well known that Rakim is selective when it comes to records, a pivotal point that scuttled an Aftermath project with Dr. Dre. Perhaps lesser known is Rakim’s fearlessness on the boards, having programed drums and even done scratching on some of his earliest classics. His taste and savvy are apparent here, as the beats are all bangers any emcee would give his left teste to rhyme on.

Rakim attacks each track with a variety of lyrical approaches which build upon his time tested methods, yet continue to be forward thinking. Flashback: Some of Rakim’s seminal recordings were done in a studio where MC Shan of the legendary Juice Crew has said he was present and actually clowning on the young upstart’s unheard of delivery. As a teenager, Rakim saw the path of the music clearly and brought Hip-Hop into a new future made in his own image. This new album will be debated and much of it is probably impenetrable to many music critics who will encounter it. The legacy remains intact.

The overall effect of this varied effort delivers a mixed result. “Man Above” could sit comfortably within a contemporary Christian Gospel play list. Here it contrasts against a heaping helping of hustle rap, juxtaposed on the record with “Documentary of a Gangsta” where Rakim flexes secular street rap skills with a sinister tone.

For an album with no curse words, it is perhaps blasphemous to shout out loud that the seventh track is effing incredible. Good Lord, it is that. When “Holy are You” first makes the speakers sparkle, Rakim’s decade of near silence melts away completely as he shines his brightest. This song smokes anything else out so far this year, it is classic Ra not afraid to step in the booth, be the best ever, and speak to forever for four minutes. That it seems over too soon simply underscores the strong replay value of much of Rakim’s formidable catalog. Rewind and repeat as necessary, until your mind is blown. Sequencing this song as track seven is an elegant touch of class from this visionary pioneer who manifests greatness. He knows exactly what he is doing with this record.

Vocally, Rakim stands on his own for the majority of the album. Of the few features the most magic is found on “Message in the Song” where his daughter Destiny Griffin sings while Rakim weaves words over a beat that oozes NYC ambiance. “Y’all know what my purpose is. I spit verses to lift curses off my dead president worshipers. Back where the surface is, gangsters and murderers. Making money made us merciless.”

Hooks have never been a crucial part of the God Emcee’s formula which continues to rely on intricate layers of meaning stretched artfully across bars upon bars of masterful wordplay. Golden Age purists looking for Rakim rhyming over straight knocking beats with scratching on the hooks will find little of that here. However, when it does happen on this album it is fantastic. Nestled toward the album’s close is the magnificent “Still in Love” which belongs among Rakim’s finest love letters to Hip-Hop, the microphone is clearly still calling its favorite fiend.

There are few American artists who defy definition as Rakim does. He is a man of many mysteries, like, “Who is God?” or “How does Gwen Stephani keep showing up on Hip-Hop records?”

The Seventh Seal moves above and beyond where Rakim’s last album The Master left off. Though at times it falls short of the high bar set by Paid in Full, its got some scorchers which will be Hip-Hop high points for 2009 and suggests that next year’s album, already in the works, will be promising. The God Emcee Rakim Allah remains in fine form with soul food for thought as Earth takes its next trip around the Sun.

“I see though the eyes of the prophets, King Tutankhamens, and Martins and Malcolms, Elijah Muhammads, wise and with knowledge. Paid in Full ain’t just the size of the pockets, this rise to the top is Ra’s economics. I show you that time is more valuable then them diamonds in your watches. You grind for the block, you die for them dollars. What’s worth more to you, your life or your gwop is?”

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