Stream: Eric B. and Rakim “Teach The Children”
By now it is accepted that Rakim was the first to conceptualize and practice rapping as “flowing”; that he was among the very first rappers to popularize the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (b.k.a. “the five percenters”); that his lyrics are crafted with godlike precision and should be revered as poetic masterpieces; and that he effortlessly strikes an uncanny balance between icy menace and debonair smoothness like no other rapper before or since. The singles from the first three Eric B. and Rakim albums are mentioned wherever a critic or a listener cobbles together a list of the genre’s greatest songs. His name reappears nearly every time an interviewer prods a rapper whose popularity peaked anywhere between 1987 and 2001 to name his key influences. The problem with such unilateral worship is that Rakim’s mythic reputation serves as a force field, deflecting critical analysis of his actual material.
The fourth Eric B. and Rakim album, Don’t Sweat The Technique, is all but forgotten. The title track is one of the swankiest, meanest grooves Rakim ever rapped on, and the album’s second single “Casualties Of War,” is an eloquent, brutal denunciation of the first Gulf War. These songs were both released as singles with accompanying videos, probably to the bewilderment of a good number of heads who fully expected Rakim to replicate the high energy street tales of “Know The Ledge” ten or twelve times and call it an album. Prior to Don’t Sweat The Technique Rakim kept his various lyrical personas — suave ladykiller, cosmic prophet, invincible emcee, social commentator, streetwise don— at a respectable distance. These personas are supposed to be colors in his palette; they are used when necessary to perform the task of tearing shit up in a cold, mystifying manner; they reveal his odd paradoxical fixations but little else.
On Don’t Sweat The Technique’s singles, however, Rakim’s veneer is cracked ever so slightly. The title track is a departure from the virtuosic braggadocio of Rakim’s more celebrated singles; his surprisingly straightforward rhymes float along nonchalantly with the unforgettable bassline. The video merely extols luxury, repose, and a healthy bit of decadence. Rakim is hardly Agent 007 here, just the smooth rapper from run-down Wyandanche enjoying his newly earned wealth; his wants and needs are nearly as simple as they were prior to “Eric B. Is President,” only now they are a little dressed up. “Casualties Of War” is everything that the title track is not: serious, topical, intense, and morally and philosophically complex. Still, Rakim’s first person narrative of a rogue veteran afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder unveils an interest in the fragility of the human psyche, which is a hair closer to exploring vulnerability than his usual focus on the indomitable human spirit.
In an album filled with jarring juxtapositions and instances in which Rakim’s famous mystique is whittled down, “Teach The Children” is perhaps the most illuminating track. It’s as tough a track as any credited to Eric B. and Rakim, yet it is light years far removed from a club [think The Roxy or The Rooftop] banger like “Know The Ledge” or even the haunting “Pass The Hand Grenade.” “Teach The Children” sounds bitterly cold, fitting for Rakim but not quite conducive to his usual immovable heroics. The track projects gloominess, alienation, and restless ambivalence. Rakim matches the mood with a first person account of a man driven by anger over injustice and inequality to steal from the rich and redistribute their wealth to the poor. His rage leads him to forgo traveling to tony neighborhoods to mug the gentry and instead concentrate on chasing down the source of wealth closest to him: the neighborhood crack dealer.
This first verse careens towards it conclusion with confidence and fury, but just as Rakim’s vigilante narrator is about to claim his trophy, he remembers the children. Using a variation of “but think about the children” as the central theme of a rap song is normally problematic, but in Rakim’s hands the idea becomes an adequately simplified extension of his five percenter inspired outlook on the future of the urban community. More importantly, the narrator’s choice to consider whether or not his violent actions might jeopardize his larger goals points to a possible conflict in Rakim’s professional life. He is a rapper renowned for his social consciousness who styles his public image after the real-life big-time drug dealers that are his friends and associates. The world of crime and vice that siphons life out of urban communities is too powerful, too pervasive to be negated merely through artistic expression.
This realization is not dispiriting, however. Rakim moves into a second verse in which he takes aim at various enemies of advancement including Eurocentric school curricula, neo-colonial militarism, and inefficient government spending. His critique is stoic and sober, more of an exercise in hard-nosed lecturing than fanciful agitprop. During this verse the careful listener can begin to parse the dimensions of Rakim’s personality that make their way into his art and inform his desire to use music as a platform for enlightenment against even the doubts of his own conscience. It’s a start, and a welcome one, four albums into his career.— Thun