(Certainly a good time to parphrase Rakim and say that "it's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you, without a strong blog to step too ..." Now. let's get back to what we do best.)
In the first installment, I proposed that we consider the four Eric B. & Rakim albums as the four quarters of the Golden Age of Hip Hop. While definitive time parameters for the Golden Age are elusive, I propose that for the sake of this series, the parameters be the time following Run DMC's Raising Hell through Dr. Dre's The Chronic, a span from roughly 1987 - 1992. Something else to consider, that like any era, the Golden Age contains phases which I will modestly label: The Ascent, The Mountaintop, and The Descent. Eric B. & Rakim's second album, Follow The Leader, is that moment when gathering oneself after ascending but seconds before actually standing on the mountaintop.
1988 ~ Follow The Leader
It could have been fairly expected that the duo would undergo the dreaded sophomore slump - when a second album fails to live up to the acheivement of the first album. With Eric B. & Rakim, there would be no sophomore slump. Follow The Leader was an improvement, a growth, an evolution from Paid In Full. Such an evolution is a testimony to their artistry because topping Paid In Full seemed so unlikely that it is not far-fetched that some would have deemed it impossible.
That is, until they saw the video for the lead single:
The video begins with Rakim seated at the head of a table, while the actors are not portrayed as hip-hoppers, the notion that Rakim is at the head of the game is easily established. The beat lends to feelings of suspense that can only be resolved through the balm of Rakim's lyrics. Lyrically, the song struck me immediately. After a few listens, I realized that the song doesn't have a chorus. Instead, Rakim spits fire and evokes vivid imagery with his vocabulary and storyline. For example, every time I hear the following bars, I can picture them in my mind:
So follow me and while you're thinking you were first
Let's travel at magnificent speeds around the universe
What could you say as the earth gets further and further away
Planets as small as balls of clay
Astray into the milky way, worlds out of sight
Far as the eye can see not even a satellite
Now stop and turn around and look
As you stare in the darkness, your knowledge is took
So keep staring, soon you suddenly see a star
You better follow it, cause it's the R
This is a lesson if you're guessing and if you're borrowing
Hurry hurry step right up and keep following the leader
Let's revist those bars. Essentially, the listener is hearing Rakim rhyme and like some type of intergalatic angel (perhaps the Silver Surfer), Rakim transports the listener through space. They travel so far away that Earth shrinks due to the distance and subsequently disappears. Keep in mind, that the listener can only stay alive because the "god" on the mic is keeping them alive. Or perhaps when they recongnize that the rhymes have carried them to galaxies beyond their comprehension, the listener becomes terrified and overcome with fear. Everything they thought they knew is rendered obsolete. They are hopeless. Until brilliant star emerges to enlighten the darkness. The R (Rakim) is that star, the source of light, our Hip Hop hope.
I swear, I pictured all that. After just the first verse of the first song of the album, my mouth was agape. Then Ra follow with some more witty wordplay:
In this journey
You're the journal,
I'm the journalist
Am I eternal?
Or an eternalist?
Wait. Hunh? What?
Those few lines were so ingenious, I had to rewind them over and over until I eventually wrote them down. Even the esteemed Talib Kweli would eventually work those lines into chorus for a track with Hi-Tek. The lead single and lead-off track of the album is loaded with hip hop quotables. But with all its splendor, it was just an opening jab for the knockout punch of a second single, Microphone Fiend.
When I was 14, I rapped this song in the mirror with my brush as a microphone more than any other song. I had never heard anything like it. Whenever I "got" a line, a cheerful glee went through my body. I even tried to incorporate the line, "every thing is wrtiten in a code so it can coincide" into as many conversations as possible. Very few knew what I was talking about and granted, it took Rakim to send me to the dictionary to learn what "coincide" meant. But once I learned and when those who recognized the lyrics heard me say the lines, there was that temporary euphoria that accompanies acknowledging a master's work.
It would be weeks before I listened to the cassette in its entirety because the first two songs were so addictive. I had become a fiend for Rakim's lyrics. While my other album favorites were Lyrics of Fury (the fearified freestyle) and To The Listeners (perhaps a precursor to the jazz influenced hip hop sound that would become more popular in subsequent years), the first "high" of the leading singles would remain the mountaintop experience for me.
Speaking of mountaintops, in the beginning of this post, I created three phases for the Golden Age: The Ascent, The Mountaintop, and The Descent. We could not have known it then, but in hindsight, it could be argued that collectively that hip hop lyrics would not be this enticing on a nearly genre-wide scale until the mid-90s. Also, I don't recall my peers and I saying then that "this is the Golden Age." Having lived through "hip hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop and you don't stop" to "I'm the king of rock, there is none higher, sucker MC's should call me sire, to burn my kingdom, you must use fire, I won't stop rockin' till I retire!"; I supposed we assumed that Rakim was evidence that the artform would continue to evolve. In some ways it did and in (too many) other ways it didn't.
But Follow the Leader was not The Mountaintop, it was the end of the second quarter which meant it was halftime or the halfway mark of the Golden Age. Eric B. and Rakim would go on to stage a third quarter barrage of of quality music that would certify their legendary status.
Check back for the third quarter - Let The Rhthym Hit 'Em