It’s rarely disputed that William Griffin (AKA Rakim) is the greatest hip-hop lyricist of all time. “Follow The Leader”, the first single and title track of his sophomore effort with DJ Eric B, represents the writer and rhymer at his apex. Everything that a rap nerd jizzes off of-complex verbiage, internal rhyme schemes, effortless flow-is put on full display. My 12 year old brain pretty much cracked the first time I heard this song. It’s dizzying, perhaps even more dizzying than normal, because Rakim is blessed with one of the best musical soundscapes he’s ever been given. Many of the game’s great rhymers have been cursed with shitty production, especially past the halfway point of their careers. Rakim is no exception. His entire solo catalog is difficult to listen to because A+ rhyming is often backed with D- beats. “Follow The Leader” is a track that gets a perfect score on both sides.
There are two pieces of the second verse that, to me, represent how far ahead of the curve Rakim was (actually, as lyricism has taken a major back seat in the past decade, I dare say the curve has moved way back).
“This is a lifetime mission
Vision a prison. All right, listen
In this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist
Am I eternal or an eternalist?”
Um, what? Is your mind blown yet? Can you imagine any one of the “Lil”s currently getting millions of streams on Spotify coming up with anything 1/100th as brilliant? I can’t either.
“Called by nature, mind raised in Asia
Since you was tricked, I had to raise ya
From the cradle to the grave
But remember, you’re not a slave
‘Cause we were put here to be much more than that
But we couldn’t see because our mind was trapped
But I’m here to break away the chains, take away the pains
Remake the brains, rebuild my name”
My man is dropping googobs of knowledge in just eight bars. Five percenter speak, lessons on slavery, the Middle Passage, civil rights? The fucccccck? Thirty years and I still feel like a little kid when I hear these verses.
We’re not done yet, though. Rakim was known for being ice-cold on the mic. While Run and DMC and LL screamed, Rakim was as cool as a cucumber. The final verse of “Follow The Leader” finds Ra getting as excited as you’d ever hear him on the mic. His voice gets just an octave higher, the words run together a little more, he picks up a little speed, and then the song ends with a few repetitions of the chorus and the sound of a bomb going off.
Because your mind has been blown. “Follow The Leader” is the master teacher’s master class.