“Thinkin’ of a master plan…” Yes, today is the today we take a quantum leap forward in the world of hip-hop with the debut album from Eric B. and Rakim, “Paid in Full”. The genre of hip-hop had been building momentum throughout the decade, starting with Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, and more recently, with commercial breakouts like Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, but the emergence of Eric B. and Rakim, with Eric B. as DJ and Rakim as MC, they dropped the record that raised the bar significantly. In contrast to boisterous yelling and shouting of the lyrics, Rakim’s rhymes were deep and smooth, with a buttery flow that is just so funky and right. To this day, many people rate Rakim as the greatest MC in hip-hop history, and I’m probably one of those advocates. As the DJ and primary sound producer, Eric B. dug deep into the funk archives of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s to create a sound that grooved, even to the point that they ultimately faced some legal pushback from James Brown as a part of releasing this album. “Paid in Full” is rated as the #61 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is also rated #8 on the definitivedose.com list of Top 10 All Time Hip-Hop albums. If I’m voting, they move higher on both of those lists, without hesitation.
To most, the album will always be most closely associated with the iconic title track, which I will discuss last, but this is very far from a one-hit album. The entire piece is a delicious combination of Rakim’s eloquent and elaborate rhymes, interspersed with the mix and cut of Eric B. There is not a single throwaway song on this album, and that is not something I often say, particularly in the earlier stages of hip-hop. They open with “I Ain’t No Joke”, and you are introduced to the bottom-end beat and blend of these two for the first time. “Eric B. is on the Cut”, along with later tracks “Chinese Arithmetic” and “Extended Beat”, showcase the production and DJ skills of Eric B. In particular, “Extended Beat” sounds like an original funk band, as if they had the Meters in the house with them recording live.
On “My Melody”, “I Know You Got Soul”, “Move the Crowd”, and the stunning groove that is “As the Rhyme Goes On”, Rakim’s greatness is on full display. As much as I have loved and obsessed over the title track for more than 30 years, “As the Rhyme Goes On” is a serious contender for the best song on this record. The bass line is ridiculous, the samples are perfect, Eric B.’s vocal cameo is just right, and Rakim is out of control good on this song. “I’m R to the A to the KIM, If I wasn’t, then why would I say, I am”… damn, this song is just unbelievably funky and truly heaven with a beat. “Eric B. is President” is a track where both of these guys shine equally, and the samples, including “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” from James Brown lift the sound up high.
So, back to “Pain in Full”, the title track. We first were widely exposed to this track when it was included in the soundtrack for the gang movie Colors, starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn. To varying degrees, each of my friends and myself were further warming up to hip-hop, as it was tightly woven with the cultural world of basketball over which we also obsessed over every day. However, this song was a game changer for us. Listening, listening, and listening some more, the lyrics from “Paid in Full” were permanently burned in my brain, and to this day, it is the only hip-hop song, and perhaps one of the few songs overall, that I can quote from beginning to end without a single prompt or assist. As many of my friends know, this memorization has fueled some ridiculous late-night moments over the years, although most of those were also fueled by other outside elements as well. However, the absurdity of my mediocre rapping cannot take away from the amazing drumbeat, bass line, and vocal delivery that define this song like no other hip-song I have ever heard. Dozens, if not hundreds of hip-hop and R&B songs that followed in the footsteps of “Paid in Full” borrowed this beat. It is one in a billion.
Like I said, there are more than thirty years of beautiful hip-hop music to follow, and a lot to enjoy still, but for my money, no other MC ever does it quite as good as Rakim. As they announce on the single version of this song, in one of the wonderful samples taken from the 1958 track “Train Sequence”, “this is a journey into sound”…