As recently as 1988 — when Eric B. & Rakim released their last album — most rap songs were boasts about the rapper’s skill. In that context, Eric B.’s maze of rhythms and Rakim’s wild, dark poetry raised the duo to the top of the field. Since then, rap has evolved, and rappers now tend to tell stories, or talk about politics. But as this new album surprisingly demonstrates, Eric B. & Rakim still boast. Their work seems out of date and, compared with the content of most rap today, constricted.
Still, there’s a lot here to listen to. Eric B.’s beats are densely woven, usually from three or four kinds of musical thread — a drum pattern, maybe a bass riff, perhaps a tickling keyboard or big-band horns — all pulling in different directions. Rakim’s voice has the texture of seasoned black leather. He hurries through the rhythmic jungle, sometimes making boasts that, retrograde as they now seem, can still be truly arresting.
When he walks down the street he’s so imposing, he says, that he leaves & fossils behind. He meditates so profoundly that he becomes a purely mental creature, so adept that he can ”return to the womb of the world as a thought.” It takes close listening to catch these lines, which come from ”In the Ghetto,” the one song that puts boasting in a larger context: Rakim says his intelligence helps him transcend the hardships of life in the black community. But boasting still dominates the album. Eric B. and Rakim remain rap’s most poetic duo, but on Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em they mostly seem to be spinning their well-oiled wheels.