There's a reason Rakim has been spitting his lyrics of fury for 16 years, causing people to declare him the rap messiah, a microphone god: the man has no lapses in his concentration.
Last week in Los Angeles, on the set of his new label mate Truth Hurts' debut video, "Addictive," he was fixated on the camera. With the belly-dancing-appropriate track playing in the background, Rakim barely nodded his head and hardly peeped at the four voluptuous beauties swirling around him. Like the opening line in his guest verse declares, he's "thinking of a master plan."
"Me and Dre gonna shake the world up," Rakim said earlier in the day. The rapper, who reached iconic status with Eric B. via the 1987 hit "Paid in Full," has been working with Dr. Dre on his third solo LP, Oh My God.
"The concept is self-explanatory," he explained in usual laid-back baritone. "When people hear the album, that's the first thing [we hope] they say: 'Oh my God! Ra and Dre finally [got together.]' When people hear it, we want them to be blown away, and at the same time I wanna change the game again. We've got high expectations for this album."
"I have to go to work right now and hard," Dre said on the video set. "I want this to be one of the best albums I've worked on. Everybody loves Rakim. He still gets respect. Everybody wants to hear him. I feel like it's gonna be like Quentin Tarantino bringing back John Travolta — just that big blast. So far, everything we've recorded is amazing."
Hip-hop fans that for years have been waiting for one of the architects of MCing to team with rap's beatmaking guru would expect nothing less. The legendary wordsmith said he and Dre are "full-steam ahead" in the studio and that by late summer the project they've been talking about for close to a decade should be in stores. Dre, though, said he's thinking about a winter release.
Rakim called his time in the lab with Dre "refreshing" and said, "You get up in the studio with Dre, nothing [else] matters. He's in there from three in the afternoon to six in the morning. To see somebody work like that, it rekindles the fire within you and makes you wanna be next to him and make it happen. His energy in the studio is real bright, and I like that."
The excitement goes both ways. "It's pretty crazy," Dre said. "I had to get over the initial shock that I was working with Rakim. I think I'm past that now. I can concentrate on getting creative and bringing something out of him maybe he didn't know he had, get something new and fresh out of him — something that's gonna be a lot better than what the other MCs are doing today. I'm not gonna stop until I accomplish that."
Rakim said that with Dre handling the bulk of the production (DJ Premier has also signed on) it's easier for him to concentrate on writing those innovative rhymes.
"When I broke up with Erick B., I went on a little hiatus. Then all I was trying do is find producers. It's real hard, man. When you're dealing with a bunch of different producers, you gotta make sure the chemistry fits. You can't have 12 records on your album and none of them sound alike. You gotta kind of have something to make them say, 'That sounds like Rakim.' It's hard. That's why this position that I'm in with Dr. Dre, I can sit back and focus on the notebook and pad. I'm in a real good position. I couldn't ask for a better producer."
What he is asking for is for some of his peers to put more thought into their music. He's hoping that like his classic debut, Paid in Full, Oh My God will show him leading by example.
"Hip-hop, we're getting slack on the creative process of what rappers are talking about," he explained. "I want to do what I feel hip-hop is. I want everybody to acknowledge it. I don't want to knock nobody down, but what I want to do on this album is point at what I think real hip-hop is. If it works, then it's all to the good. If not, then I might have to submit to what's going on, but I'll never do that! I always went left to what everybody else was doing. I'm used to going against the grain. I definitely want to make a statement this time and change rap."