December 20, 2007

Drink Coasters: Rakim - The 18th Letter (November 4, 1997)

I'm expecting some pretty harsh commentary following the publishing of this post, but even the most hardcore hip hop head, one that has been listening to this great art form ever since the time of Kool Herc and the Sugarhill Gang, has to realize that Rakim, in my opinion the best rapper ever, put out a pretty shitty solo album here.

The 18th Letter was released by megahyperconglomerate Universal Records a full five years after legendary producer/emcee duo Eric B. and Rakim released their final album together, Don't Sweat The Technique. Back in 1992, both artists expressed interest in recording solo albums, but ultimately their deals (and their partnership) went sour. Rakim Allah spent his five-year hiatus laying low, ostensibly to let label problems work themselves out, only popping up on fellow New York disciples Mobb Deep's title track to the Hoodlum soundtrack (a song that was pretty damn good, I must say). That guest spot both introduced him to a brand new audience and caught the attention of die-hard fans, those that still rock to "Paid In Full" and "Eric B. Is President" to this day.

The short version of my The 18th Letter review is that, while he may be the best rapper alive (because he pretty much invented the rhyme styles of today, and is still good with his), he's pretty much in cruise control on this disc. The album is constructed around an interview that Rakim seems to be doing with absolutely nobody, explaining why he went solo and why he took so long to release his album. Out of the twelve actual songs featured here, one is a remix, one is an alternate take on the first single "Guess Who's Back", and the other ten just aren't any good.

Rakim certainly has the clout to bring the best producers in hip hop together; however, he only pulls in Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Clark Kent on the name-brand tip. Peter Q. Rock's "The Saga Begins" features a lazy beat built around some (admittedly compelling) keys and a drum kit, and is probably the best song on here. "When I'm Flowin'", conversely, is probably the worst PR beat I've ever heard in my life. Primo doesn't fare much better, as both of his contributions, "It's Been A Long Time" and "New York (Ya Out There)", feature bargain-basement Primo tracks with lazy Rakim lyrics that he probably came up with on the drive to the studio. (For the best Primo/Rakim collaboration, I invite you to check out his second, equally-shitty solo album The Master, which I will not review because I don't own it anymore. Their work together on "Waiting For The World To End" is better than every single song on this album combined.)

DJ Clark Kent provides four songs for Rakim's comeback, including the first single "Guess Who's Back", which is passable, but the rest of his contributions aren't memorable or worth listening to. And the songs that the name producers had nothing to do with, such as "Show Me Love" and "Mystery (Who Is God?)" (produced by Naughty Shorts, the worst producer name in history), will cause you to apply pressure to the sides of your head in an effort to ease the pounding headache that wasn't there but three minutes ago.

The sequencing on the album is also all wrong. (Apparently Rakim's A&R was too busy mountain climbing with his electric guitar to pay any attention to The 18th Letter.) The Suave House remix to "It's Been A Long Time" is unnecessary, inappropriate, and embarrassing; was Suave House even an industry force in 1997? Were they even that popular at this point, besides maybe Eightball and MJG? (And Tela. I remember liking Tela back in the day.) And the 'Alternative Mix' to "Guess Who's Back" would have been better off in the Universal vaults; the inclusion of these two songs is proof positive that Rakim didn't record enough material to warrant any sort of album release, so it needed to be padded like a pillow-top mattress. Also, these two tracks are at the end of the disc, but are followed by the outro; shouldn't they have been pushed to the very end as bonus tracks? The sequence of this disc may be horrible at best, but having these two tracks tacked on is beating a dead horse.

I commend Rakim for creating an album in 1997 that was relatively clean; you could listen to The 18th Letter with your grandmother during Matlock. It's too bad that the best use for this disc is to hold your Bubble Tape when you happen to have lost the canister. Rakim Allah should have remained in the shadows and popped up for cameos on more albums before attempting the comeback special. Avoid this one at all costs.

Actually, I take that back. In a HHID first, I'm about to recommend a Drink Coaster of an album, but not because of the disc itself, which is still completely fucking terrible. In 1997, the first pressing of The 18th Letter was released as a two-disc set, titles The 18th Letter/The Book of Life. The Book Of Life was the second disc, and it is fifteen tracks of the best of Eric B. and Rakim, as a way to get acclimated into the vocal style of Rakim. (This practice isn't unheard of: EPMD's last album to date, Out Of Business, came with a bonus CD of their greatest hits as well.) The second disc includes some of my favorites as "Know The Ledge" and "Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em"; in fact, the only track I had to hunt down was the "Paid In Full (Coldcut Mix)" (although the original version is preserved for your listening pleasure here). I'm not exactly sure how the legalities of having these songs attached to a Rakim album occurred, but I don't give a fuck; the second disc is the best primer to Eric B. and Rakim out there today, and if you must ignore the above paragraphs and pick up The 18th Letter, you had better pick up the double disc version, so that your disappointment will be cut by half.

-Max

15 comments:

  1. The two Primo tracks were better than you give them credit for, but otherwise it's like you're reading my mind.

    Yet another album that came out back in the day that people liked solely because they thought they were supposed too.

    This was junk.

    The Hoodlum soundtrack however is ridiculously dope and should be picked up.

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  2. Suave House WAS an industry force by 1997 and Tony Draper's label had a new deal with Universal/MCA worked out before shifting to Noo Trybe later on. This album was as terrible as you said it was (it WAS disappointing, though).

    The Master was just sad...the cover looked like it cost $50 to make @ the local Kinkos.

    One.

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  3. Your opinion. It was okay.

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  4. Dart, that's esactly what I thought when I picked it up at a Best Buy back in the day (I have since sold it because some albums don't deserve to be in anyone's collection). The Master looked like a bootleg that I recorded in my basement and sold out of my locker in high school. I guess I had completely forgotten about Suave House (although, as I mentioned in the post, I liked Tela's first album, and Eightball and MJG were better back then, before Puffy fucked them up).

    Aaron, the only two songs I remember from the Hoodlum soundtrack are the title track (which is really really good, but edited on the album! Anyone have the dirty version that's from the vinyl single, not from a mixtape? Anyone?) and the song that Ol' Dirty Bastard provided, which also rocked, but I don't remember anything else.

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  5. lol i love when i'm flowin sorry

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  6. "Apparently Rakim's A&R was too busy mountain climbing with his electric guitar to pay any attention to The 18th Letter."

    this made me fall out of my chair laughing! that line from 36 chambers always makes me think of GZA playing guitar on top of a mountain

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  7. I'm glad you reviewed this one and it's weird that I can agree with a lot of the criticisms but I still like this album for some reason. There's some crap on here - like both mixes of "Guess Who's Back" are really awkward and shitty - but Rakim is at his best when's he's just flowing about the greatness of his own skills. Actually, he is THE best at that and he obviously had something to prove here, even if the interview clips are a little superfluous. I think the Pete Rock tracks are probably the best on here - and how about a whole Rakim collab album with him instead of Soul Survivor 33 1/3? And I like most of the beats on here because third-rate Primo knock-offs are always better than "first-rate" Swizz Beats or some garbage. It's harder to defend "The Master" and Dart is right on about the Kinko's level artwork on that. I just think Rakim is too great an artist to get "drink coastered" - I actually wish more guys in hip-hop would have followed his direction of a smooth, literate flow that can slay anyone without a gat.

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  8. Rakim is the best rapper of all time. The Master didnt dissappoint at all I felt that album and every other album he put out.

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  9. i agree with you and disagree at the same time,cuz there were only like 3 tracks that werent dope to me but u have to admit the rest of the album was dope

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  10. I still remember the day that I bought this album in the fall of 1997. I bought the album on my birthday. At the time I didn't have an internet connection, so I couldn't even hear a few samples off of the album. Anyways, I took the album home and listened to it. I could not believe what I was hearing. I thought to myself, is this really a Rakim album? I swear, this album ruined my birthday. Out of the 17 songs, only 4 songs were good enough to make an EP. "The 18th Letter", "Its Been a Long Time", "New York" and "Remember That" are the only songs that I liked. I didn't understand as to why they had to add those horrible remix songs at the end of the album. They should have saved those for the single release. Ra should have asked Primo or Pete Rock to produce the entire album. Everything else on the album is horrible. Oh don't forget about the 1999 dud "The Master". That album is worse than "The 18th Letter".

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  11. I don't think this is as bad as drink coaster material as the lyricism was far ahead of pretty much everything else at the time, with decent enough production to accompany it, although thanks to Rakim's pathetically dull delivery nothing aside from 'New York (Ya Out There)' will ever be consistently listened to.

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  12. I know it's been nearly two years since .. but Max, if you still need the dirty version of 'Hoodlum', I have it.

    As for this album, it was a surprising 'meh'.

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  13. realatzn - if you have it, I'm still interested. Just hit me up at the e-mail in the top right.

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  14. i agree with you here max, rakim let g rap outshine him in solo careers, and speaking of g rap, you should review his albums

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  15. AnonymousMay 19, 2015

    I think everyone is being too harsh on "The Saga Begins". I actually prefer it over "Waiting for the World to End". Pretty much agree with Max on everything else.

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