Backspin: Eric B. & Rakim — Follow the Leader (1988)

After revolutionizing the art of rap, Rakim launched it into outer space on an often overlooked sophomore moonshot. (84/100)

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Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader is the pinnacle of Golden Era MCing and of Rakim’s mythical microphone mastery. The duo’s 1987 milestone, Paid In Full, introduced the modern style of rapping, rich with cerebral wordplay, multi-syllabic rhymes schemes, and a chillingly modulated vocal delivery. This 1988 follow up perfected the techniques, leaving the legion of rappers who had been striving to mimic Rakim from the moment he turned up the bass and handed out that fateful cigar once again grasping at his mesmerizingly elusive lyrical chemtrail.

The instant the title track’s brooding bassline kicks in, followed by throbbing percussion and tensely urgent horns, it’s clear that Rakim isn’t just coming through the door this time around. He’s levitating out of the building, city, and entire planet. The ensuing lyrical barrage does not disappoint:

Follow me into a solo, get in the flow
And you could picture like a photo
Music mixed mellow, maintains to make
Melodies for MCs, motivates the breaks
I’m everlasting; I can go on for days and days
With rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays
I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard
Flip it, now it’s a daily word
I can get iller than ‘Nam, I kill and I bomb
But no alarm, Rakim’ll remain calm
Self esteem make me super superb and supreme
But for a microphone, still, I fiend
This was a tape, I wasn’t supposed to break
I was supposed to wait, but let’s motivate
I wanna see ’em keep followin’ and swallowin’
Takin’ and makin’, bitin’ and borrowin’
Brothers try and others die to get the formula
But I’m a let ‘cha sweat. You still ain’t warm
You a step away from frozen, stiff as if you’re posin’
Dig into my brain as the rhyme gets chosen
So follow me, and while you’re thinking you were first
Let’s travel at magnificent speeds around the universe
What could you say as the earth gets further and further away
Planets are small as balls of clay
Astray into the Milky Way, world’s out of sight
As far as the eye can see, not even a satellite
Now stop and turn around and look
As you stare into darkness, your knowledge: took!
So keep starin’, soon you suddenly see a star
You better follow it ’cause it’s the “R”
This is a lesson, if you’re guessin’ and if you’re borrowin’
Hurry hurry step right up and keep followin’

Only Rakim would lead would-be opponents to the farthest reaches of the universe only to to lose them in the darkness, re-emerge as a star, and challenge them to to keep up as he darts to and fro among the planets like a UFO, all to demonstrate the magnitude of his microphone supremacy. Eric B. & Rakim certainly had bigger hits, catchier party-starters, and more iconic classics, but “Follow the Leader” is the song that best encapsulates Rakim as a rapper: sophisticated, abstract, cold blooded, and just mercurial enough to provide an other worldly air of mystery. Most of the album’s highlights follow suit.

But before further mining the jewels of his mind, Rakim descends from the stratosphere to affirm his earthly prowess on the infectiously accessible, but equally hypnotic “Microphone Fiend.” Built on a simple but potent loop from The Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush,” the track provides a propulsive platform for Rakim to deliver a series of vivid vignettes illustrating the hold that hip-hop has on him.

I get a craving like I fiend for nicotine
But I don’t need a cigarette, know what I mean?
I’m raging, ripping up the stage and
Don’t it sound amazing, ’cause every rhyme is made and
Thought of, ’cause it’s sort of an addiction
Magnetized by the mixing
Vocals, vocabulary, your verses, you’re stuck in
The mic is a Drano, volcanoes erupting
Rhymes overflowing, gradually growing
Everything is written in a code, so it can coincide
My thought’s my guide
48 tracks to slide

“Lyrics of Fury” lives up to its title, with Rakim spraying ferocious bars over a sonic cyclone of a track that’s clearly influenced by the “wall of sound” the Bomb Squad built for Public Enemy earlier in the year. The track is jarring at first, the controlled chaos of the beat not necessarily an intuitive fit for Rakim’s precise and measured style. But the production decision to intermittently drop the “noise” out of the track, stripping it down to its bare bones accelerated “Funky Drummer” sample, allows the listener to hone in on the pocket into which Rakim is seamlessly weaving his intricate rhyme patterns. When the accompanying cacophony kicks back in, suddenly his voice not only fits into the puzzle, but acts as a metronome of sorts, keeping the disparate elements in rhythm.

To this day, that opening trifecta is one of hip-hop’s most mesmerizing. It also makes Follow the Leader one of the genre’s greatest teases, hinting at the all-time great album that could have been. We now know that due to a case of writer’s block, Rakim was late in delivering the album to a label eager to capitalize on the momentum created by the world shaking success of Paid In Full. As a result, its completion was likely rushed, leading to a somewhat inconsistent project. It soars to then-unparalleled heights of rapping and lyricism, but also bogs down with unnecessary filler and production that doesn’t always match the virtuosity of the MCing.

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“Put Your Hands Together” and “No Competition” are both solid album cuts. The former is a vintage ’88 banger driven by an uptempo drum loop and a cascading horn sample viciously scratched in and out of the mix. Rakim delivers a clinic of syncopation and rhyme schemes, effortlessly rhyming the middle syllables of sentences, and even words. He not only evokes the crowd-moving power of hip-hop in the first verse, but uses the second to school the uninitiated on exactly what the music is and where it derives its power.

The latter finds Rakim expanding the “7 MC theory” of Paid in Full into a motif that unfolds over two verses.

Three-fourths of water makes seven seas
A third of land, 360 degrees
I circulate and remain to rotate
Seven days a week at a quick or a slow rate

While more than enough to remove any doubt that the mind of Rakim simply functions at a higher level than that of mere mortal mic rockers, neither track quite captures the raw infectiousness of “Microphone Fiend” or the hypnotic aura of the title track.

“To the Listeners” and “The R” lean on live instrumentation, but the 80s keyboards and programmed beats feel thin and synthetic compared to the textured thump of the sample-driven tracks. Again, Rakim’s flawless flow and superb lyricism make them listenable, but when the instrumental for “To the Listeners” is repackaged as “Beats for the Listeners” to close the album, it underscores just how weak the track is.

Likewise, the five and a half minute DJ showcase “Eric. B Never Scared” and the instrumental interlude “Just a Beat,” sequenced back to back as the album’s forth and fifth tracks, squander the momentum built by the opening triumvirate. Simply put, in no world where a prime era Rakim has fully functioning vocal cords should an album of his ever contain back to back instrumentals.

Perhaps it’s that inconsistency combined with a lack of singles that blend organically into an old school DJ set that have held Follow the Leader back from the well-deserved ubiquity enjoyed by Paid In Full. Still, while it’s mainly the Paid In Full singles for which Rakim is revered by younger generations, it’s Follow the Leader (along with 1990’s Let the Rhythm Hit ’Em) that form the backbone of any serious argument for Rakim as the Greatest of All Time. The intricacy of his rhyme schemes, the depth of his metaphors and similes, and the cerebral sophistication of his boasts during this era remain unsurpassed.

While the ensuing 20 years produced a handful of other MCs with legitimate claims to GOAT status, having surpassed the god MC in longevity and range of subject matter, nobody has ever rapped about rapping better than Rakim. It’s hardly coincidence that as the ’90s dawned, that particular brand of braggadocio saw a precipitous decline in prevalence. Rakim perfected it with Follow the Leader, and if you can’t at least match his virtuosity, then you’re simply languishing in the universe while his shining “R” shimmers eternally out of reach in the distance.

By the Numbers

Production: 7
Lyrics (how the words are put together): 10
Delivery & Flow: 10
Content (Substance): 10
Cohesiveness: 7
Consistency: 7
Originality: 8.5
Listenability: 8
Impact/Influence: 9
Longevity: 7.5

Total — 84

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Backspin is a look back at the albums that shaped and defined hip-hop. It explores what made them resonate, the impact they had on the culture, and where they fit in today’s ever-expanding hip-hop canon.

Cynical idealist, vintage futurist, habitual line stepper. I write on all things modern culture: media, technology, politics, and according to Medium, movies.

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