Everything I needed to know about writing,

I learned from

“Paid In Full”

Nearly twenty-eight years after its release, the album offers the best look at the lives of writers

When people talk about finding good writing music, they’re usually talking about music to write to. They want something ambient and ethereal, animated and propulsive, or immersive and complete. They want something to ignore, something that lets them ignore the rest of the world, or even something that lets them pretend they aren’t writing at all. Whether you’re a student hunkering down for a term paper, an aspiring novelist, or a professional nonfiction writer trying to get an assignment out the door with just a dram of art still on it — music is a tool to help you avoid the ugly, awkward gap between beginning and end.

Eric B and Rakim’s album Paid In Full is not precisely that. Their debut is too immediate, too real, to help you avoid anything. But it’s not just an album of danceable, hard-hitting, Golden Age hip-hop songs either. It’s that rarest of things: a collection of amazing writing, by a writer, for writers, about writing, that you actually enjoy. It doesn’t feel like work.

I’ll go one step further. As a songwriter, Rakim meets or beats any of the self-consciously literary greats of the rock era: the Bob Dylans, the Joni Mitchells, the Tom Waitses, the Leonard Cohens, the Paul Simons, the Elvis Costellos, the Morrisseys. There’s nothing wrong with these folks; I like them too. If you want to know what divorce feels like, go listen to their records. If you want to know or recognize what it’s like to be a writer, fire up Paid In Full.

Just too real for these streets.

If you’re into hip-hop, the fact that I’m shilling for Rakim is probably no surprise. He’s widely acclaimed as one of the most respected and influential MCs of all-time — and frankly, if you leave him off your top five, it’s an omission that I assume means you’re trying to start an argument.

Other rappers are better known, many made much more money. I’ll even believe other MCs had better records or live performances. But nobody is a better writer than Rakim.

Rakim uses several different techniques to show off his writing gifts. First, there’s his delivery — not shouted like his old-school predecessors or golden age contemporaries, a voice to be heard over noisy crowds through bad equipment, but measured, restrained, crooned. It’s the downbeat, introspective off verses of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” raised and refined into an all-new style. If Bing Crosby brought pop songs from the megaphone to the microphone, Eric B and Rakim decisively brought hip-hop from the block party to the studio album, from the boombox to headphones.

That vocal shift poses new problems, but opens up new possibilities. You can’t rely on the big punch and bigger counterpunch of a strong, overemphasized end rhyme, in the style of Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” So Rakim layers his lyrics with complex internal or multiple rhymes and stop/start polyrhythms. It doesn’t hurt that he just simply loves words, lots of them, all of them, short and long.

Rhymes are poetically kept and alphabetically stepped
Put in a order to pursue with the momentum, except
I say one rhyme out of order, a longer rhyme shorter
Or pause…
but don’t stop the tape recorder — “My Melody”

Rakim’s reduced volume also makes possible a kind of intimacy that isn’t usually found on old-school hip-hop records. Rakim works in the same forms of narrative storytelling and bragadoccio, posturing, flyting as earlier rappers, but fuses them with a meditation on the self. Rakim the writer becomes his own lyrical subject, in both the poetic and the musical sense.

I start to think
and then I sink
into the paper
like I was ink
When I’m writing, I’m trapped
in between the lines
I escape
when I finish the rhyme
“I Know You Got Soul”

Rakim introduced genuine interiority, with all its layers and complexities, into hip-hop. (Without Rakim, no Tupac, Nas, Lauryn Hill, nor Kendrick Lamar.) It’s not “these are the things I have experienced” or “this is why I am a superior entertainer,” or even virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. His music aims to convey as directly as possible what it is like to be Rakim.

Mostly, what Rakim’s experience is like seems to be a nonstop step-stair between a platform of supreme confidence and the burden of self-imposed anxieties. Mostly, Rakim worries about letting his audience down. Nothing Rakim can write is good enough, fast enough, real enough for Rakim — but every other artist falls even farther short of his standards. (“It can be done, but only I can do it,” he says on “I Know You Got Soul.”)

This is a twin delusion to which I suspect many writers can relate. A third, and the root of Rakim’s anxieties, is the fear that success and its trappings, whether large or small, can disappear at any moment. The song I queue up whenever this fear rolls over me is the title track of Paid In Full.

This is also one of the best hip-hop videos ever.

“Paid In Full” has only one verse, just 58 seconds long, but it is utterly flawless. The album version has an informal introduction and postscript, back-and-forths between Rakim and his partner Eric B, that act as meta-commentary; the remix surrounds it with sampled songs and old movie, TV, and commercial quotes. But the soul and substance of the song is that one perfect verse. Its opening line is a gem, an Imagist distich poem, and a perfect example of everything that makes Rakim Rakim:

Thinking of a master plan
‘Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand

It’s that see-saw between confidence and anxiety, subjective imagination and objective detail. The hand in the pocket empty of everything but sweat could be a folk cliché or a line from Shakespeare — and it is nevertheless absolutely real, lived experience. Rakim accrues more details:

So I dig into my pocket, all my money spent
So I dig deeper, but still coming up with lint

This “So I” becomes a refrain in “Paid In Full.” Besides these two, it begins four more lines before the track’s done. Each time, it carries the same double meaning of “And then” and “Therefore”: the same blend of necessity, futility, and resolve.

Rakim’s hands and pockets aren’t just empty of the money he’s thinking . “I used to be a stick-up kid,” he tells us, before a startling register shift remembering a gunpoint robbery:

I used to roll up: “this is a hold up, ain’t nothing funny
Stop smiling, be still, don’t nothing move but the money”
But now I learned to earn cause I’m righteous
I feel great so maybe I might just
Search for a 9 to 5
If I strive then maybe I’ll stay alive

Later rappers made scenes like these part and parcel of the genre. But Rakim doesn’t usually write about violent street life, especially on Paid In Full. He moves right past the memory, stream-of-consciousness-style, to a prosaic fantasy about a full-time job.

(If you’ve never been a full-time writer without a full-time job writing for a newspaper, magazine, or website, it is astonishing how constant the fantasy of an ordinary, nonwriting 9 to 5 career becomes. Waiting for a freelance check to turn up? Search fornonprofit jobs” on LinkedIn. Writing a story you don’t like for a publication you don’t even like to read? Browse Pinterest boards of cubicles. Behind on deadline? Maybe I could still be a tax attorney.)

The main reason Rakim’s thinking about getting a job, though, is because he misses writing (and music, and eating):

Feeling out of place cause, man, do I miss
A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and Eric B and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish

Then comes the Rakim line that I think about more than other: “I don’t like to dream about getting paid.” It’s the best motivation I have to pitch, finish, and file. It’s what I whisper under my breath whenever I’m trying to get contracts or paperwork finished. And for Rakim, it’s what helps him focus on making music:

So I dig into the books of the rhymes that I made
So now’s a test to see if I got pull
Hit the studio, cause I’m paid in full

So may we all, Rakim. So may we all.

I first heard this song when I was seven or eight years old, when I had fantasies of wearing track suits, kangol hats, and gold chains. I had no idea that all of those things would sound silly today, but the rest of the words would describe my imaginary life so well.

Today, I listen to a song from Paid In Full at least once a week. I sing “I Ain’t No Joke” to myself in the shower. Twenty-eight years after it was released, nothing else is better at helping me get ready to write.

And if you’ve never heard Rakim on the microphone, or never written something for paid publication, he offers another bit of wisdom I quote often:

It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.
“Yo, Tim, what happened to ‘peace’?” PEACE!