It’s sometimes worth remembering that rappers are largely victims of circumstance, forced collaborators incapable of creating a significant portion of their own music. Like strictly vocal lead singers, they’re parasites, in the best sense of the word—creative pirates feasting off the material of others. Yet unlike a lead singer, who has the relatively secure structure of a backing band, the right mix for a rapper can be frustratingly ephemeral. It also forces an added element of business onto a genre that’s already obsessed with it, making success as much about raw talent as the ability to deal with the right producers.
All this conjecture finds a real application in Rakim, routinely identified as one of the best MCs of all time, who—along with Eric B—helped define the spare, sample-driven sound of late-‘80s hip-hop. But the two haven’t worked together in 17 years, and on The Seventh Seal, Rakim finds himself shackled to a mass of middling producers and unexceptional beats, surroundings where even his outstanding technical acumen isn’t quite enough. Rest assured, that legendary skill is still present. Rakim continues to be one of the best at inexhaustively, and nearly exclusively, rapping about himself. His grandiose self-titling as the God of rap has not by any means abated (see the ballsy “Holy Are You,” which mixes NOI spiritualism with insane self-aggrandizement).
Yet this signature pride also feels slightly desperate and out-of-sync on an album where Rakim is constantly playing catch-up with the times. The beats here are roundly unexceptional, dense with the formal bells and whistles that now signal hits, too-hectic embellishments that, unlike Eric B’s airy horn breaks, don’t leave adequate room for his measured, velvety flow. This is the case for “Man Above,” which starts with a whisper of promise with a familiar horn break but turns out to be little more than a nod to the past.
Obviously a return to scrappy ‘80s form is too much to ask for. But while Rakim’s verses are solid, Seventh Seal plays either as consistently behind or drearily on par with the times. Some of the production is outright sabotage, like on “Dedicated,” which ends the album on a strangely off-kilter note, ruining an otherwise fine song by building itself around No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” one of the lamest core samples in recent memory.
Suffice to say there’s nothing very compelling here, though Seventh Seal is made interesting by the paucity of Rakim’s material. This is his first solo album since 1999, only his third in total, and he’s been wise not to water down his brand. Unfortunately, straining to find a niche also strains the material. Drug narratives were never his forte, as evidenced on the derivative “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” a nearly wholesale rip of Ghostface Killah’s “Kilo.” The song works off the comparison of slinging rhymes to slinging narcotics—perhaps the oldest, stalest metaphor in the book. It’s not something you hear too often about a rap album, but Seventh Seal leaves us wishing Rakim would talk a little more about himself.