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Album review: Rakim's 'The Seventh Seal'

November 16, 2009 |  5:55 pm
RAKIM_240 It's been a long decade since Rakim's last album, a period in which the New York native's hometown lost its role as hip-hop's locus to the South, the Midwest and the decentralizing tendencies of the Internet. It's been an even lengthier 23 years since his debut 12" single with Eric B. revolutionized rap with its complex rhyming patterns, authoritative baritone, funky break-beats and indomitable cool.

The apotheosis of rap's first Golden Age, Rakim spent the lion's share of the 2000s mired in label purgatory at Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records. Sadly, the fruits of their collaboration remain unheard, with Rakim unwisely discarding the Dre beats in favor of a cast of mostly unknowns. Indeed, the "Seventh Seal" is undone by its boilerplate production -- rote drum patterns, predictable piano lines and antiseptic studio technique.

The rappers who have stayed artistically vital despite advancing age (Ghostface Killah, Scarface, Slick Rick) are champion storytellers who continue to burnish their craft. Rakim remains frustratingly opaque, with the brunt of his songs dedicated to rapping about rapping. The 41-year-old attempts to channel the ferocity of his Reagan-era rhymes while balancing a spiritual side ("Man Above") and romantic disposition ("You & I," "Psychic Love," "Still in Love.")

Of course, there are few better formalists than Rakim, and when the music matches the master ("Holy Are U," "How to Emcee") the album reaches the rarefied heights of long ago. Unfortunately, all too often the God sounds like a mere mortal.

-- Jeff Weiss


"The Seventh Seal"
Ra Records/Tuscan Villa/SMC Recordings
Two and a half stars (Out of four)