Declining relevancy is invariably a problem faced by any aging rapper — what matters is how the rapper in question handles it. Will Smith, Reverend Run, and Ice-T reinvented themselves with ease, but the other MCs who helped pioneer hip-hop have tried to do the same with tragically mixed results. Big Daddy Kane hasn’t released an album in 11 years. Slick Rick spends his time trying to avoid cops and delivering effective, albeit painfully sporadic guest verses. LL Cool J is retired (probably for the best). KRS-One keeps his name in the papers with gleeful, harebrained endorsements of Soulja Boy and 50 Cent. EPMD launched a failed comeback attempt earlier this year. Kool G Rap and De La Soul continue to work under the radar. The Beastie Boys still have a career, but they aren’t crafting a sequel to Paul’s Boutique anytime soon. Chuck D is still working the political angle; Flava Flav, meanwhile, hopes to acquire his GED soon.
Rakim’s early works — 1987’s Paid in Full, 1988’s Follow the Leader — are widely regarded as the apex of rap’s golden age, but recent times have been callous to the 41-year-old pioneer. His working relationship with Dr. Dre famously imploded in 2003, an event that triggered a lengthy period of exile: Other than a verse on DJ Premier’s rugged ’07 posse cut “Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been),” the God MC was largely silent in the last half-decade.
Times are different now. LL isn’t that Puma-donning kid at Danceteria, and Rakim isn’t the slick adolescent from Queens, gliding effortlessly over spare, funky backdrops. He hasn’t released an album since 1999, and it shows on The Seventh Seal. It’s a moderately likable record with enough social-consciousness and subject variety to appease fans that are tired of trite pop-rap, but workmanlike rhymes and colorless beats too often camouflage those strengths.
Without question, Rakim is rusty. The man used to strike a balance between virtuosic prowess and cool, unruffled confidence, but he’s grown far less exhilarating since his peak, even if he still possesses the occasional ability to write moving compositions. Ra goes into great detail about his struggles to find employment as a felon and the guilt that his past continues to provoke, instances that prove to be genuinely touching. Otherwise, though, he’s not much more than a passably lucid wordsmith. Even “How To MC” (which succeeds thanks to a blaringly funk-filled beat from Slyce) finds Ra spitting nice, understated bravado — but nothing as transcendent as that title might suggest.
The more ominous material fares considerably worse. “Documentary Of A Gangsta” is utterly forced in its attempt to convey brooding nihilism, while “Walk These Streets” features a Young Jeezy-aping verse from Maino; both tracks are weighed down further by lifeless, sullen pianos. The relentless gloom sometimes results in deeply haunting music — witness “Holy Are You,” where the ghostly choral vocals float creepily over a piercing synth — but it’s simply dull most of the time, and this monotony stops only when Ra’s producers equip him with more vibrant, soul-oriented beats, such as on the idyllic “Working For You.”
It’s clear that Ra’s goal was to balance hustler posturing with nods to romantic dedication (“You and I”) and God (the melancholy “Man Above”), as well ruminations on the blessings of family — his daughter, Destiny Griffin, contributes a jerky sung hook on “Message In The Song.” Noble intentions, but Rakim’s once-matchless skill no longer really exists. The Seventh Seal is perhaps the most stale, thoroughly unremarkable album of 2009, and confirms a sad fact: Some comebacks are better left unexecuted.