No Ceilings, the most recent mixtape from New Orleans’ Lil Wayne is hip-hop du jour. It’s a standard within the genre embraced by a mass culture that tips its hat to topics profane and pedestrian, with a decidedly dangerous-sounding bent. Lil Wayne’s innovative wordplay and youthful defiance places him center amid real-life drama and connects new millennium MCing to MCing, DJing, B-boying and graffiti art that framed the culture as it emerged out of the Bronx more than three decades ago.
To be clear, Wayne’s flow is exceptional, multi-layered and is more complex than the easily digestible bravado that is most celebrated in today’s mainstream rap. He’s an example of hip-hop’s multi-dimensionality. And yet, notwithstanding Lil Wayne’s lyrical acumen—or Jay Z’s avowed respect for the culture—Golden Age hip-hop heads still find themselves searching for music with more intellectual weight, particularly with the genre’s reaching certain milestone anniversaries.
“Rapper’s Delight” is now 30. The Def Jam label is celebrating its silver anniversary status, and nearly two decades have passed since N.W.A. and Public Enemy were at the peak of their seminal tirades. Journalist Jeff Chang dubs this sense of disconnect between then and now “hip hop’s mini-generation gap.”
Re-enter Rakim. With The Seventh Seal, Rakim’s first album in nine years (save a live offering in 2008), fans can remember the best in hip-hop via the best lyricist ever.
And Rakim’s new release is an important cultural marker, an example of aging well in a youth-obsessed medium—perhaps even instruction on how to do so. Musically, it’s what Jay-Z is doing through his iconography, but with less hype. And that’s cool. Rakim is still underground, maintaining credibility where there is, admittedly, the loss of a bit when pop culture hand-holds your favorite MC.
But Rakim has always been different. Six years ago, he stepped away from Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label and almost certain crossover success. “This is my calling,” Rakim, 41, says in his super-thick New York accent just before a recent, midnight show in Atlanta. “I want to bring awareness, [and] I know that my work is connected to a higher power.”
“My reward is bigger than what I could have gotten. Since ‘86 I’m still here and able to put out a record. I think that by me sacrificing a lot, this is my reward—being able to do an album in 2009 and [to] get a little love from the world. That’s my reward for not copping out, for not selling out.”
That sense of integrity is evident with Rakim’s third solo album, which leans heavy into a spirituality that he set as cornerstone in the Eric B. & Rakim classic LPs Paid in Full and Follow the Leader. “Whenever I sit down to write I feel like I got someone watching over me, telling me what to write,” he says. “Maybe He was there from day one, and He’s still there.”
Certainly, reflection is nothing new. Age will do it to you every time. But to have Rakim lyrically process the maturation of hip-hop through knowledge of self is notable. He remains an important, authentic force within the music and the culture.
Hip-hop has always been rebel music. But the object of resistance is difficult to pin down in the 21st century. No, we’re not post-racial. But we have a black president; Flavor Flav is doing Sprint commercials and The Digable Planets now rep for Tide detergent. Mainstream pop culture has embraced the genre, positioning MCs as rebelling against poverty (which is important) with hegemonic excess and little else. These days, the most accessible hip-hop is screaming into the wind to a good beat.
But hip-hop can still be dangerous; it can still challenge in purposeful ways that help to liberate psychologically. It’s a device that we get to attend to as adults. Scarface did it with The Fix; De La Soul did it with The Grind Date; recently Mos Def with The Ecstatic. Rakim gives The Seventh Seal as a “sign of the times” in an effort to have listeners think critically and act deliberately.
Youth is an important engine within hip-hop; with age comes the responsibility to ensure that there truly are No Ceilings with word, work and critique. Adults fortify childhood dreams with reality.
David Wall Rice is a research scientist and professor at Morehouse College. He’s written for the Washington Post, Vibe, The Source and is presently a contributor for The Takeaway.