Happy 30th Anniversary to Eric B. & Rakim’s second studio album Follow the Leader, originally released July 26, 1988.
In 1987, William “Rakim” Griffin and Eric “B.” Barrier changed the course of hip-hop music with the release of their debut album Paid in Full. A little over a year later, they adapted to the changing times and still made one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. And that’s saying a lot, considering that 1988 was practically drowning in incredible releases.
With the release of Follow the Leader, the duo’s sophomore album, Eric B. & Rakim proved they were absolutely for real. I still maintain that Paid in Full is among the best hip-hop albums ever recorded. One of the reasons for this is the lyricism that Rakim displays on the album, perfectly putting together phrases and delivering them with an effortless flow. While Paid in Full remains the better overall album, Rakim delivers the superior lyrical performance on Follow the Leader.
Rakim further sharpened his lyrical ability on this album. He has said that many of the rhymes on Paid in Full came from routines that he performed or lyrics that he re-used from his rocking in the park and club days during the mid ’80s. Rakim started from scratch while creating Follow the Leader, in an environment for hip-hop music that had changed even in the space of a year.
In 1988, much of hip-hop production was dominated by faster-paced tracks. Sometimes the producers would sample the music of James Brown; often they would utilize break-beats from the Ultimate Beats and Breaks collection. Many of the beats on Follow the Leader come from samples on Ultimate Beats and Breaks, sometimes in the form of straight loops, sometimes in the form of manipulating or even replaying the tracks using studio wizardry. Regardless, the results crackle with raw energy, both musical and lyrical. In 1988, Rakim had very little competition. And though Rakim created the slow flow, he was even better rhyming at a break-neck speed.
Follow the Leader opens with arguably the best three-track opening sequence in hip-hop’s history, a trio of the finest songs in the duo’s discography and necessities on any list of the best hip-hop songs ever. The album opens with the title track, a pulsing, pounding track dominated by commanding horns and eerie keyboards and sound effects. The song serves as Rakim’s proclamation of his domination in the realm of hip-hop. Although the song’s music video is known for its ’20s and ’30s gangster film imagery, Rakim’s lyrics feature many allusions to outer space and intergalactic travels, with the God MC travelling at “magnificent speeds throughout the universe.” It’s speculated that some of the rhymes target fellow Long Island residents EPMD, who were in the midst of a mini-feud (long since resolved) with the duo.
As with Paid in Full, and truthfully many of the albums released during that era, production credits tend to get muddled and can be a bit unclear. Though all production on the album is credited to Eric B. & Rakim, there has always been talk that some of the album was ghost-produced. For what it’s worth, Mark “The 45 King” James, a prominent beat-maker at the time, has said that he in fact produced “Microphone Fiend,” originally intending to give the beat to Fab 5 Freddy. Yes, the guy from Yo! MTV Raps. The track ended up with Eric B. & Rakim, and the duo made a historically dope record.
Rakim delivers another virtuoso performance on “Microphone Fiend,” unleashing a potent and unrelenting stream of lyrics for nearly three minutes. He exerts total control over the sped-up guitar loop from Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush,” likening his compulsion to rock mics to that of an addict’s need for a fix. He famously asserts that this addiction makes him a “smooth operator operating correctly” as well as a “menace to a microphone, a lethal weapon, an assassinator, if the people ain’t stepping.” And it’s a testament to the superiority of Rakim’s performance on this album that “Microphone Fiend” isn’t even Follow the Leader’s peak.
That would be “Lyrics of Fury,” one of the most ferocious tracks Rakim ever recorded and an out-of-control musical maelstrom. Rakim descends onto the track like an angry prophet scorching everything in sight with his lyrical napalm. There aren’t many more captivating demonstrations of flow and lyrical construction than when Rakim rhymes, “The scene of a crime every night at the show / The fiend of a rhyme on the mic that you know / It’s only one capable, breaks—the unbreakable / Melodies—unmakeable / Pattern—unescapable / I haunt if you want the style I possess / I bless the child, the earth, the gods and bomb the rest.” The song’s production is perfectly suited for the lyrics, churning and rumbling along like a hurricane. James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” break never sounded as menacing as it does here, especially as it’s paired with the blistering guitars from Funkadelic’s “No Head, No Backstage Pass.”
Even after a this tremendous opening stretch, the quality of Follow the Leader remains incredible, even after slowing a bit with two largely filler instrumental entries. The second half of the album kicks off with “Put Your Hands Together,” a forgotten composition by the duo. Though much of the track is dedicated to Rakim’s commitment to moving the crowd, he temporarily shifts from God MC to teacher, as he provides a detailed explanation of why rappers use samples: “’Cause we don’t have a band, it’s just my voice and his hands / That’s what hip-hop was, it still stands / The records we use are from mom's and pop’s collection / Find a break from a dope selection.”
These lines were a response to the lawsuit the duo was dealing with at the time. James Brown had sued the group over the unauthorized sampling of Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” on their legendary track of the same name on Paid in Full. Rakim would address the Godfather of Soul much more directly and harshly later in the album; we’ll get to that later. On “Put Your Hands Together,” however, he does name check “Static,” a late ’80s song by Brown mostly known for featuring him delivering vocals over samples of his previous hits.
Follow the Leader isn’t quite as strong when things move at a more deliberate pace. Here, the issue doesn’t come from the lyrical end, but the musical one. Particularly, the beats falter a bit when they opt for live instrumentation rather than sampling. Steve “Blass” Griffin, Rakim’s brother, is a talented musician who is credited for playing on the album, but his contributions at times don’t seem to fit.
The most notable example is “To the Listeners.” While Rakim sounds like a natural rhyming over the drum break from The Headhunters’ “God Made Me Funky,” the keyboard replaying of the horns of Mandrill’s “Fat City Strut” doesn’t quite fit. On the mic, Rakim remains top notch, explaining to potential imitators why his style is impossible to duplicate, rapping, “Maybe you're waiting, to see what I'm making / One more style gets taken, then I’mma be breaking / Into patterns and pauses, piano is soft / But make it hard for you to start, where I left off.”
“The R” is the stronger of the slower tracks on the album. Which is in itself slightly odd, because the beat is a replaying of the Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park,” a funky and fast-paced, jazz-infused break famous from hip-hop’s early park jam days. Here they slow down the track, recreating its distinctive bassline and piercing synthesizers, and adding a stuttering drum track. Lyrically, The R himself remains on point, advising his audience, “You wondered how come the album was late? I was giving you time to get the last one straight.”
But as is the case throughout this album, Rakim sounds the best flowing over the faster tracks built on break-beats. “No Competition” is a track that rarely gets mentioned in the context of The R’s discography. Rakim declares his domination as an emcee and performer, rapping over the horn break from Manzel’s “Space Funk,” and accompanied by scratches and crispy drum tracks that sound fresh forwards and backwards. Rakim pieces together his phrases and stanzas impeccably, rapping, “No one in my path can withstand / Under pressure the wrath of a swift man / You name the day, the grounds could be neutral / Speak your piece, the feeling's mutual.”
“Musical Massacre” is in the same vein, as Rakim lets loose one of his best and most unheralded lyrical performances. Whereas he was a pure force of nature on “Lyrics of Fury,” he delivers his rhymes almost effortlessly here. The song certainly features one of his best opening lines on an album filled with great opening lines: “How could I keep my composure / When all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure?”
As he rhymes over a sample from Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun,” Rakim unleashes some of his most intricately contrasted and interlocking rhymes, rapping, “Cordless ’cause the wire caught fire like a fuse / Gunpowder and the slightest bruise is a friction / The outcome is there so listen / Here's the brief description / A boom then flame then smoke, ashes a dust to dust / Contact is compact when I bust.” He then spends a good chunk of his second verses comparing his rhymes to a raging inferno, before throwing in an additional jab at James Brown, saying that Soul Brother #1 “must've been dusted, disgusted, now he can't be trusted.”
Follow the Leader remains one of the key reasons that Rakim is rightfully regarded as one of the best to ever pick up a microphone and why Eric B. & Rakim’s initial four album run is still considered legendary. Even three decades later, you’re not going to find many performances better than the one Rakim contributes here with only nine songs. With Follow the Leader, the duo created an album that was different enough from their initial classic offering to show their versatility but still showcase their strengths. Rakim saw which way the winds of hip-hop were blowing, and still managed to be ahead of his time.