ON THE SOURCE's Web site, a poll asks current rap stars to answer the question "Which old-school MC has made the wackest comeback?" Hip-hop originator Rakim rightfully escapes such a profile. On his second solo release, this 14-year veteran best known for his work with former partner Eric B. retains his focus on hip-hop's two pillars: beats and rhymes. The Master harnesses the raw energy that gives hip-hop its emotive power and progresses with the consistent motion of a turntable jam. Regardless of what production elements were used, The Master sounds like it could have been made with just the proverbial two turntables and a microphone.
The Master (Universal)
The album opens with "Flow Forever," a mic check-like introduction where Rakim sharpens his sword, rhyming about staying grounded and progressing. As he says on one of the album's later tracks: "If there's a freestyle bust at the park, I want in." Here, Rakim lays his smooth baritone over a plodding beat and rich turntable backspin, establishing the old-school flavor that permeates the record. After this warm-up, the explosive "When I B on the Mic" accelerates the album to warp-speed. Producer and mixmaster DJ Premier introduces the cut with a razor-sharp scratch, and his seamless turntable work exemplifies Rakim's claim: "This kid got his craft mastered/Hands is mad quick like he mix with magic." Premier's stuttering cross-fader technique often drops the music to silence, and Rakim's penetrating rhymes expand to punctuate the beats perfectly.
Like contemporary peers Q-Tip and Mos Def, Rakim retains the hard edge of the street without glorifying its underbelly. On "Uplift," a cascading orchestral crash and blaring Latin horn solo jockey for position, and "the R" uses this firm sonic landscape as a platform to rally against the parasitic drug dealers who poison their neighbors for tainted diamonds and German cars. His concern for the health of the inner city continues with the stellar "Waiting for the World to End," where he attacks the cyclical gangster mentality that lays a sick glass ceiling over poor neighborhoods. He comes back to the theme again and again: "I see destruction/Even little kids bust guns/That's what they get a rush from."
The Master is a worthy contribution to Rakim's legacy. When he and Eric B. dropped the watershed Paid in Full in 1987, the devastating synthesis of Rakim's hardcore street themes and Eric B.'s furious turntable work shook the germinating hip-hop world all the way down to its shell-toe Adidas. Since then, the innumerable times Rakim's phrase "pump up the volume" (from "I Know You Got Soul") has been scratched into DJ mixes and rap tracks testifies to this MC's profound influence. Though hip-hop acts rarely age well, Rakim's latest disc makes the hook-line from his classic "As the Rhyme Goes On" sound prophetic—as time goes on, his rhymes only get rougher.