Monday, November 26, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #219 - Eric B. & Rakim - Don’t Sweat the Technique

            Conventional wisdom tells you that Eric B. & Rakim debuted strong in 1987 with their greatest work, Paid in Full, and then released three more albums of slightly diminishing returns before breaking up (and then reuniting 25 years later for a live tour, but that’s another story). But my ears tell me different. They tell me that the duo started good and kept getting better as album makers, and that the classic status accorded to their first two albums rests on the strength of their (admittedly, absolutely classic) singles but not so much the rest of the songs, whereas the lesser status of the other albums is because they aren’t thought to have singles in the same league as “I Know You Got Soul” and “Follow the Leader” - this is also a false assumption. Paid In Full’s minimal beats-and-groove topped by Rakim’s speedy, word-heavy flow was a revolution in the sound of rap, taking Run-D.M.C.’s innovations a step further. Follow the Leader upped the ante by fleshing out the music. Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was a tentative move in the direction of expanding their music, and their forward progress culminated in Don’t Sweat the Technique, their fullest, jazziest, and most consistent of their four albums.
            The duo's music was a huge influence on rap. Though Rakim gets the lion's share of the praise, it's not just their influence on major MCs from Nas to Ghostface Killah to Eminem, but also on beatmakers and producers - it’s hard to imagine the RZA’s minimal, fragmented beats for the Wu-Tang Clan empire or the Bomb Squad's relentless productions for Public Enemy without Eric B. having done this first. But by 1992 when this record was released rap was expanding in so many directions at once - the Native Tongues movement and Public Enemy and Beastie Boys in NYC alone changing the sound of modern hip-hop, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube redefining the West Coast sound (not to mention other regional variants) - that it got lost in the shuffle, their first (and only) regular album that didn’t go gold. Fans at the time were disappointed that they didn't stick to the tried-and-true. But Eric B (born Eric Barrier) says that they group wanted to stay on top of things. In a 2016 interview with The Combat Jack Show he notes his awareness of up-and-comers who could easily turn the group "old school" - "These guys were really right on our heels—the Nas’s and the guys coming up. So we had to go into the studio and separate ourselves on the next level." And that they did.
But it's not just the fact that the album is more diverse than its predecessors that sets it apart - it's simply a solid listen, beginning to end, in a way that the previous records aren't. The album is a mix of narrative-leaning pieces like the romantic “What’s On Your Mind?” and the Desert Storm PTSD nightmare “Casualties of War” with Rakim's more typical stream of consciousness word flow pieces like “Pass the Hand Grenade” and the title cut. But in either mode, Rakim just never stops, his flow fast, clear, and assured, augmented by Eric B.'s expanded palette of jazz bass, horn hooks, soul backup choruses, and so forth that mark each song in the memory. And if Eric B.'s hooks are what draw me back, Rakim's words are what give the album its never-ending depths. He throws down so many that I’m still deciphering parts 26 years later - not that I can’t understand what he says, just that part of the joy of this music is letting the dizzying rush of words go by, focusing in occasionally to zero in on a song’s subject, or one of Rakim’s brilliantly rhymed phrases that I just noticed this time around (as in this couplet from “The Punisher”: “Go manufacture a mask, show me after / a glass of a master that has to make musical massacre”).
Oh yeah, those killer singles I mentioned earlier? "Know the Ledge" and "Don't Sweat the Technique" have actually become acknowledged as great tracks by the duo, but "Casualties of War" and (the non-single) "The Punisher" - all in the group's faster/harder mode - are on par as well. That's four great ones right there (same as on Paid In Full), without even counting that "Relax With Pep," "Rest Assured," "Pass the Hand Grenade," and "Kick Along" smoke any of the filler cuts on the debut - or noting that there are four more solid ones beyond even those, and they may not even be your faves the way they're mine. Back on one of the duo's greatest songs, "Follow the Leader," Rakim says "Rap is rhythm and poetry, cuts create sound effects" - this is the album where they prove it in the most diverse and consistent way.
-         Patrick Brown

No comments: