First off, I have to apologize for being slow in my posts. Life has been pretty busy (in a good way) so I will try to post more frequently. Got a this piece on Erik B. and Rakim since I haven't done anything by music yet and I'll have reviews of Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and Orson Welles' F for Fake within the week.
2011 has been a strange year for Hip-Hop and music in general. I've felt that a lot that has come out has disappointed or has merely been mediocre. I've really dug St. Vincent's Strange Mercy, Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Thundercat's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, Andrew Jackson Jihad's Knife Man and a couple others, but I've generally been disappointed, especially with Hip-Hop. Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. have released solid work this year, but I thought those works were generally a bit overrated. Watch The Throne was extremely mediocre with only a few tracks standing out to me ("New Day", "Otis"-sort of, "Niggas in Paris"-sort of") and Tha Carter IV was embarrassing for a guy who once crowned himself the "Best Rapper Alive."
Maybe I'm becoming sentimental in my own age and preferring to listen to an era of Hip-Hop that suits me better than the modern era, The Golden Age and its aftermath. When I think of Hip-Hop I think of A Tribe Called Quest, The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Ice Cube, etc. Really the time between 1988 and 1996. I tend to dismiss the notions that Hip-Hop is dead. Like most media output, many people are nostalgic to the point that they disregard most modern art and say things like "they don't make ______ like they used to." Movies, Music, Literature, you name it. This is really a topic for another, much larger post, but I wanted to insist that I do not hold reservations on newer media outputs. I once was a nostalgist, but now I am not.
That said, I wanted to go back and do something that will from this point on, be an anomoly for me. I want to crown a best Hip-Hop Song of All Time. These lists are generally worthless since time has not ended and thus, a best of all-time in anything can simply not be evaluated. I am putting this song with the title of "Best of All Time" to reiterate its massive, hiroshima-esqe influence on the genre, and provide some discussion to a song (and a rapper) that simply does not get enough attention anymore.
The song I am selecting for the "Best Hip-Hop Song of ALL TIME" is Eric B. and Rakim's "I Ain't No Joke" because it is perfect. In 3:52, Hip-Hop changed. There is Hip-Hop before Rakim and Hip-Hop after, with the effect being a kicking down of doors akin to Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" which like "I Ain't No Joke" is not necessarily Dylan's best song but is certainly his most important. "I Ain't No Joke" introduced Internal Rhyme to Hip-Hop allowing for an unmatched quality and opening the floodgates for all rappers everywhere. Following the album Paid in Full the bar was raised and the genre progressed with the effect being something like the Sermon on the Mount: this is how it was before, this is what it will be from now on.
"I Ain't No Joke" also further cemented the practice of proving respect in Hip Hop. After "I Ain't No Joke," the listener takes Rakim seriously, especially after hard-hitting rhymes like "I hold the microphone like a grudge." Modern rappers accumulate phantom dead bodies with all the violence and murder in many of their catalogs, yet this line by Rakim devastates all of that because it is authentic even while being hyperbolic. The rest of the song details questions as serious as cancer, nobody smiling, waking up to a stern enemy, the unknown but presumably grisly end of unnamed seven MCs, rough rhymes, and guides out of triple stage darkness. Rarely are rappers this capable of adding so much surrealism to their verses and retaining a realistic, authentic feeling.
Finally, I suggest that this is the best rap song of all time because it is airtight with not a second wasted. In a genre known for its excesses (in lyrics and beats), this song does not have an ounce of fat. Every word and line feels pre-ordained and inevitable. The listener plays the song and it ends before he/she realizes what has happened. Hearing this song is a revelation, even for a listener who has jaded attitudes toward 1980s Hip-Hop. The song itself is almost beyond dissertation however, because it is really all about pure effect. "I Ain't No Joke" is Hip-Hop in condensed arrested motion that moves anew whenever played. Other rappers have used Rakim's template and improved upon it, but no other rapper is as strong a pioneer as Rakim.