Rakim The 18th Letter

In this edition of The Dust Off, we’re taking it back to the golden era, 1997 to be exact where Rakim, who recently celebrated his 53rd birthday, dropped his debut solo album ‘The 18th Letter‘. It’s hard to really find the words to describe Rakim, his impact, legacy and influence on hip hop – or how to tackle this solo (double) album that was so eagerly anticipated having been four or five years since ‘Don’t Sweat the Technique’ saw the end of the ‘Eric B & Rakim’ era. But, we keep it real and so we are dusting it off, putting it back through the ringer and bringing our thoughts and discussion to the table.

I will admit a conflict of interest of sorts. This is one of my all time favourite hip hop albums. Not saying it’s the best, but it came out when I needed it to, was the soundtrack for a long period of my latter teens AND Rakim is forever in my top 3 emcees (alongside 2Pac and Sean Price). So, if any of that bias comes through, now you know what it do!

When you are already considered one of the greatest emcees, when hip hop is at it’s peak of popularity AND when you haven’t dropped new music (or worked with a range of outside producers) then expectations are high. But when you’re Rakim – and you hear it in his rhymes and especially on The 18th Letter – you wear that badge of honour, you take on the hopes of the hip hop community and you knock it out of the park.

Follow procedures, the crowd couldn’t wait to see this
Nobody been this long awaited since Jesus
” – Rakim on ‘It’s Been a Long Time’

With Eric B no longer on the scene, the production was going to be a focal point for many but when you’re one of the greatest artists of the era (and now of all time) you don’t have a shortage of top-tier beatmakers wanting to lace you with some flavour. Enter DJ Clark Kent, DJ Premier and Pete Rock who do a lot of the heavy lifting beat-wise on this album. And true to their style, they provide hard hitting, culturally significant, sonic backdrops that allow Rakim to paint his verbal masterpieces over the top of them. (The genius of Preemo is on display as he cuts samples from Eric B is President and it’s paired with Rakim’s own the self-reference spitting the line “I came in the door, I said it before” from the very same track!)

In contrast, DJ Clark Kent who was certainly a reputable beat maker, crafting hits for Notorious B.I.G among others around the same time this joint dropped, is responsible for one of the weaker moments on the album. As an ‘old head’ you may want to check me on it, but Rakim was wasted on the modern-sounding, R&B crossover style tracks like ‘Stay A While‘ and ‘Show Me Love‘ produced by Nick Wiz wasn’t any better. I’ll die on that hill. Now, these tracks were as ‘Rakim RnB’ as they could be, but when your pen game is elite and the rest of the album explores the Koran, scripture and next level mental gymnastics – these were awkward.

There has NEVER been a more naturally gifted and authentic emcee as Rakim. His voice, cadence, delivery – you can see why the fiend of the microphone is considered a God. It’s so effortless, so genuine yet perfectly imperfect. Whenever you hear Rakim on the mic, you just get consumed and The 18th Letter is a fantastic example of that. Once you subtract the skits (which were such a great insight and so relevant at the time) the remixes and the ‘push for mainstream love jams’, you are left with about seven incredible tracks. It may not sound a lot, but these aren’t 2 or 3 minute, simple bar, feature-laden tracks…. these are real songs.

Is this a ‘classic’ in the true sense of the word? Is it an ‘Illmatic’ or a ‘Reasonable Doubt’? Probably not, but it’s a brilliant debut solo joint that has stood the test of time from an artist that influenced Jay, Nas, Biggie, Wu Tang and a host of others that all have classic albums in their own right. ‘The 18th Letter’ is a must have for true hip hop heads, and was an enjoyable and insightful walk down memory lane.

If you have an idea for an album that we should ‘Dust Off’ next, let us know in the comments or go and hit us up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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About The Author

By Brutus Maximus

Founder of Raw Side Hip Hop. Been rocking with the hip hop culture for over 30 years. Love the creativity, authenticity of the art and the culture as a whole. Shout out to the real ones making and supporting true hip hip and the artists who make it!