“This Time I Wanted to Feed the World”: The Making of Rakim’s “The 18th Letter”
After spending the late 80s and early 90s wowing people with his remarkable lyricism and devastating flow, William Griffin, better known to the world as Rakim, boldly tested the solo waters of the music industry once he and former group mate Eric B dropped Don’t Sweat The Technique in 1992. Despite the duo’s successful track record and prolific output of four albums in five years, several business and creative differences forced them to part ways relatively early on in their careers.
With a five year gap between Eric B & Rakim’s final album together and Rakim’s The 18th Letter, expectations surrounding his solo debut were incredibly high. The album was once slated for release in 1995, but someone leaked Rakim’s studio masters when the project was nearly complete and he decided to start over from scratch. Though the significant delay of The 18th Letter was likely in large part due to the studio leaks, there may have been an additional contributing factor. “He takes a while [to write],” DJ Premier said of Rakim in a 2011 interview with Complex. “You have to be like, ‘Come on, Ra, when am I going to see you again?’ Several months later he’ll just be like, [Imitates Rakim’s voice], ‘Yo, G. Yo, I’m about to lay that, you nah’m sayin?’”
If Premier’s assessment of Rakim’s writing process is accurate, perhaps putting together verses at such a leisurely pace is part of what helped Rakim pen some of the most quoted and sampled rap lyrics of all time. But as celebrated as Ra’s lyrical output was from 1987–1992, it seems he was aware of his reputation for sometimes going over the casual listener’s head with his complex lyricism and layered meanings.
“When [Rakim] did ‘The Saga Begins’ it was almost like a Paid in Full feeling.” -Pete Rock
Rakim’s goal with The 18th Letter was the make something that was accessible to a broad spectrum of people, including those outside his dedicated fan base. “This time I wanted to feed the world,” he told Mojo in 1997 while describing his desire to touch masses. “I wanted the beats to hit ’em right away, and I wanted the lyrical content to hit ’em right away. I wanted to make ’em understand. Immediately.”
It’s hard to say in hindsight if the album met the incredibly lofty expectations of Rakim’s eager fans, but The 18th Letter was certainly a stellar offering of strong production and tightly composed verses. With DJ Premier and Pete Rock crafting nearly one fourth of the album’s tracks, The 18th Letter marked the first time Rakim had worked with two of raps most celebrated producers in an official capacity. As exciting as this historic moment was for fans, it may have been even more exciting for the producers who had a chance contribute to the album.“When [Rakim] did ‘The Saga Begins’ it was almost like a Paid in Full feeling,” Pete Rock told SindanuTV in a 2011 interview. “It didn’t sound like anything on Paid in Full but it just gave me that feeling of working with Rakim, the greatest emcee ever.”
Rakim had a reputation for being very picky about his beats, so having two of his tracks selected for the The 18th Letter was a point of pride for Pete Rock. “When he did ‘The Saga’ it just made me so proud of myself to be in that position and to be able to do a beat that he likes,” he told SindanuTV.
“This time I wanted to feed the world.” -Rakim
Clark Kent was another producer aware of Rakim’s selective nature who was thrilled to have a chance to work on the album. Kent, who produced the album’s biggest single “Guess Who’s Back”, recalled wanting to make Rakim a record that matched the energy people felt about his return to the rap game. “I wanted it to sound energetic, and I wanted it to sound like a statement,” Kent told Complex in 2011. “And I thought the horn hits of the sample sounded aggressive. I wanted him to talk his talk and pop shit about being the greatest. Rakim’s the god.”
According to Kent, despite working with some of the biggest names in the music industry, international audiences are still most impressed with his memorable contribution to Rakim’s catalog. “I’ve worked with Biggie, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, and all these big name artists, but when you go to Japan, all they care about is, ‘You, you did ‘Guess Who’s Back,’” he told Complex. “You did a record with Rakim.’ It’s ill.”
The album has many highlights, including DJ Premier’s vintage scratch-chorus-laced “It’s Been A Long Time” and “New York (Ya Out There)”, but The 18th Letter also has some lackluster moments. Clark Kent’s production is strong for the most part, but the dated, R & B-laced “Stay A While” has not aged well. And though the Suave House Mix of “It’s Been A Long Time” and the Alternate Mix of “Guess Who’s Back” aren’t bad, they feel more like filler than actual cohesive additions to the album.
Despite the handful of misses, songs like “The Mystery (Who Is God?)” will satisfy those who consider Rakim a rap god as he tackles the origins of the universe according to the Islamic faith. Spitting verses like, “Atoms by the millions, til the numbers increasing/’Til it was burning he kept returning itself to the source/The hotter his thoughts it gave the center more force/He gave birth to the sun which would follow his laws/All caused by his mental intercourse, who is God?” with his trademark understated flow, this song and many others will give you plenty of thoughtful words to mull over for a long time.
The 18th Letter may not be the undisputed classic that the people were hoping for when it dropped in 1997, but much of it has aged well and still deserves mention as an important part of Rakim’s impressive catalog. Over a nice cross selection of top-shelf instrumentals, Rakim proved he still had the skill set that eared him a reputation as one of the best on the mic. Revisiting will make his fans wonder why he only dropped a mere two albums in the 20 years since its release.