As one half of the legendary duo Eric B. & Rakim, Rakim has been a pioneering force in hip hop, pushing the boundaries of lyricism and production with his razor-sharp rhymes, groundbreaking flow and cool delivery.
Ever since his debut in the mid-80s, the God MC has consistently set the bar high for MCs that followed in his footsteps – whether it was Biggie, Nas, 50 Cent or Kendrick Lamar, every rapper who emerged post-1986 has been influenced by Rakim in one way or another.
From the groundbreaking debut Paid in Full to the evolution of his sound on The 18th Letter, we rank every Rakim album, from worst to best.
The Seventh Seal
Released: November 17, 2009
Label: Ra Records, TVM, SMC Recordings, Fontana, Universal
Emerging from a ten-year hiatus, Rakim’s third solo studio album, The Seventh Seal, dropped at the end of the 2000s, and by all intents and purposes, was a disappointment. Though initially titled Oh, My God and slated for a 2002 release via Aftermath Entertainment, the project was shelved due to creative differences between Rakim and Dr. Dre, ultimately leading to rapper’s departure from the record label. Consequently, The Seventh Seal doesn’t feature any material from the unreleased Aftermath project, but rather, entirely new content produced by Nottz, Needlz, Jake One, and Nick Wiz. Despite the absence of the highly anticipated Dr. Dre collaborations, Rakim proves that he still has the lyrical prowess that made him a legend, as highlighted in tracks like “How to Emcee” and “Documentary of a Gangsta.” While The Seventh Seal may not be the masterpiece die-hard fans are used to from the God MC, the album is an important reminder of Rakim’s enduring influence and relevance in the rap game.
Released: November 30, 1999
Rakim’s second solo album, The Master, proved that the legendary MC hadn’t lost his touch, even as he adapted to the evolving rap landscape. As a follow-up to his 1997 solo debut, The Master showcases Rakim’s signature laid-back flow, dense lyrics, and intricate internal rhymes, reasserting his status as one of the rap’s greatest lyricists ever. With a stellar lineup of producers such as Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, the 45 King, and Rakim himself, the album boasts top-notch beats that complement, but never overshadow, Rakim’s undeniable lyrical prowess. Tracks like “Flow Forever,” “When I B on the Mic,” “I Know,” and “It’s the R” highlight the rapper’s confidence and skill, leaving listeners nodding in agreement with every self-assured boast.
Don’t Sweat the Technique
Released: June 23, 1992
Building on the momentum of 1990’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, Don’t Sweat the Technique showcased a more aggressive side of Rakim, perfectly complemented by Eric B.’s jazzy, soulful production. Tracks like “Casualties of War,” with its political undertones and references to the Gulf War and post-traumatic stress disorder, and “What’s Going On,” addressing the crack epidemic, poverty, black-on-black crime, police brutality, and abortion, highlighted Rakim’s ability to tackle complex social issues. “Know the Ledge,” originally featured in the film Juice, is Rakim in full storytelling mode as he narrated the life of a neighborhood thug coming to terms with his destructive lifestyle. While the album is arguably the weakest release to come from the legendary duo, Eric B. & Rakim further solidified their status as one of rap’s most respected acts with Don’t Sweat the Technique.
The 18th Letter
Released: November 4, 1997
The 18th Letter, Rakim’s debut solo album, was released on November 4, 1997, following a five-year hiatus after the dissolution of his partnership with Eric B. The album boasts a star-studded production lineup, including DJ Clark Kent, Pete Rock, Father Shaheed, Nick Wiz, and DJ Premier, and explores themes such as hip hop’s golden age, Rakim’s unparalleled rapping skills, and the state of the culture itself. Marking a triumphant return for the legendary emcee, The 18th Letter stands out as one of the most impressive records released by a veteran rapper in the late ’90s. Rakim’s ability to switch between his signature laid-back flow and a more aggressive style demonstrated his versatility and undeniable talent. While the album may have a few slow spots, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Rakim’s solo debut remains a powerful and vital contribution to the hip hop landscape, setting the bar high for other ’80s rappers making their foray into the new era of rap music.
Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em
Released: June 19, 1990
Hitting the shelves at the beginning of the new decade, Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em found Rakim adopting a more mature and aggressive sound, with his deep voice and serious subject matter taking centre stage. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em may not have been a significant departure from their previous work, but it still emphasized Rakim’s exceptional rapping technique, with tracks such as “Step Back” and “No Omega” display Rakim’s unparralleled lyricism on the mic. Although the album did feature some message-driven tracks, the majority of it focused on Rakim’s linguistic prowess and his ability to boast about his mic skills. Consequently, Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em remains an enjoyable, albeit somewhat limited, entry in the duo’s discography, offering a snapshot of the ever-evolving hip hop landscape of the early ’90s.
Paid in Full
Released: July 7, 1987
Label: 4th & B’way, Island
As a landmark release in the golden age of hip hop, Eric B. & Rakim’s debut album, Paid in Full, holds an esteemed position as a genre-defining record that continues to impact and inspire artists even today. Released on July 7, 1987, the album introduced the world to Rakim’s groundbreaking lyrical technique, characterized by complex internal rhymes and smooth, unpredictable flow. Meanwhile, Marley Marl’s innovative, sample-heavy production set a new standard in hip hop production. Marley’s skillful manipulation of James Brown samples, in particular, on tracks like “I Know You Got Soul,” inspired countless producers to explore new ways of creating beats and sounds. As the years have passed, Paid in Full‘s influence has only grown, with its elements frequently sampled and referenced by GOATs like Eminem, Nas and Jay-Z.
Follow the Leader
Released: July 25, 1988
Label: Uni, MCA
Paid in Full is Rakim’s most influential album ever, but Follow the Leader is the better piece of work. The production is evolved, showcasing a harder, fuller sound that featured more samples and instrumental contributions from Stevie Blass Griffin, while the God MC continued to assert his lyrical dominance on tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “Lyrics of Fury.” Ra’s intricate wordplay, vivid metaphors, and unrelenting flow, on this album particularly, cemented his position as the best rapper of the ’80s. Though Follow the Leader didn’t venture too far from the established themes on the duo’s debut, Rakim’s ability to elevate braggadocious rhymes to an art form remained unparalleled.