Happy 20th Anniversary to Rakim’s debut solo album The 18th Letter, originally released November 4, 1997.
It’s hard to find anything to say about pioneering hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim that hasn’t been said before. Don’t Sweat the Technique, their fourth and final album dropped in 1992 was a worthy end to an incredible run by the emcee and producer. It also set high expectations for the inevitable solo record from master lyricist Rakim.
And then five years went by. It was a lifetime in an industry that moves fast, especially in the ‘90s when so much innovative rap music was being made. Those involved in the creation of Rakim’s debut suggest the artist spent years procrastinating, and the leak of an early version in 1995 also didn’t help. The 18th Letter finally arrived in 1997 with a lot of anticipation, and it didn’t disappoint.
The pantheon of great rap duos has shown us that the magic is often lost when the rapper decides to branch out and work with outside producers, usually out of necessity when the group breaks up. Guru, CL Smooth and Parrish Smith never managed to sound as good without DJ Premier, Pete Rock or Erick Sermon supplying their beats, but this wasn’t likely to be a problem for Rakim.
In the years since Eric B. & Rakim’s heyday there has been doubt and confusion about what exactly Eric B. brought to the table. It’s now widely accepted that Marley Marl played a significant role in producing the classic debut Paid in Full (1987) and that Large Professor and his mentor, the late Paul ‘Paul C’ McKasty, contributed heavily to later albums.
Rakim had essentially, therefore, always rapped over instrumentals by other producers, and would still sound fresh as a solo artist. There would have been no shortage of beatmakers willing to supply him music. The 18th Letter includes contributions from DJ Premier (“It’s Been a Long Time,” “New York (Ya Out There)”) and Pete Rock (“The Saga Begins,” “When I’m Flowin’”).
It was almost a given their names would appear in the credits, both fitting the bill of what you’d expect from a ‘90s album by a rap icon. You’d also maybe expect to find beats by Large Professor, Diamond D and Buckwild, but none make an appearance. Instead, perhaps to the surprise of some, the most prolific producer on the album is DJ Clark Kent, suggesting that Rakim was looking for a more modern sound.
Despite this, there's something distinctly nostalgic about The 18th Letter. Its self-referential, as hip-hop records tend to be, like on "It’s Been a Long Time" where Rakim quotes his "I came in the door / I said it before" line from "Eric B. Is President" while DJ Premier cuts up samples from that same song and "I Know You Got Soul.”
It goes deeper though, with an atmosphere at certain points that harks back to an era of rap before the late ‘80s period when Eric B. & Rakim reached their prime. It’s there in the throwback, jam-in-the-park sounding “Guess Who's Back”—ironically one of the DJ Clark Kent tracks—and in DJ Premier's decision to use well-beaten samples like “Long Red” by Mountain on “New York (Ya Out There)”.
It was a somewhat odd direction to take considering this was Rakim's shot at making himself relevant again to those already aware of his music, and appeal to a new generation of listeners at the same time. If the decision to use beats by DJ Clark Kent was the attempt to catch a younger demographic, it was arguably a step too far for some. The talented producer was in-demand at the time having scored major club hits in the run-up to 1997, including Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s “Players Anthem”, JAY-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Sky’s The Limit” by The Notorious B.I.G. The instrumentals he contributed to The 18th Letter are all good, but the R&B crossover “Stay a While” doesn’t suit Rakim well. It’s a look he’d dabble with again a few years later during his short stint on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, but it’s not the type of song you want to hear from someone as lyrically gifted as Rakim.
There are better attempts at looking forward elsewhere on the album, however. The aforementioned "I came in the door / I said it before" line on "It’s Been a Long Time" ends with “but no I ain’t down with Eric B. no more”—a statement of intent that Rakim was now entering a new chapter of his career.
The 18th Letter is packed with a wealth of lyrical excellence, reminding everyone exactly why Rakim is considered as one of, if not the greatest rapper of all time. He flows effortlessly across the album’s ten full tracks (there are also skits and a couple of remixes), still the master of the braggadocious style he helped write the blueprint for, dropping lines such as “So all hail the honorable / microphone phenomenal / persona is unbombable / trust me son / I continue like a saga do / bringing you the drama to /allow you that the chronicle has just begun” on “The Saga Begins.”
That five-year hiatus was evidently spent perfecting what was already a perfect style, taking as much time as needed to ensure his words were as devastating as possible. It showed a disciplined work ethic and an impressive attention to detail at a time when it was becoming fashionable for rappers to boast about taking just minutes to write a hit, recording their verses in one take without even writing down any lyrics.
To be this sharp so late in his career also spoke volumes about Rakim’s staying power, and separates him from peers like Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, neither able to shine as brightly as this by 1997. It’s also worth noting that Rakim saw no reason to try and prop himself up with guest emcees. There would have been a line around the block of famous artists willing to work with him, but The 18th Letter has no guest appearances at all.
Rakim would go on to release two other decent albums (1999’s The Master and 2009’s The Seventh Seal) but neither as good as The 18th Letter. There have been rumors of an Eric. B & Rakim reunion since 2016, but new material has yet to surface.