July 7, 2007 came and went quietly. There was a particular loudness about that quiet, however – particularly to Hip Hop fans. Hip Hop’s most renowned lyricst – Rakim – failed to deliver his highly anticipated (and rumored swan song) The Seventh Seal. Fast forward eight months, and pretty much the only new material from the Mic God fans were able to sink their teeth into was an admittedly dope All-Pro Football 2k8 commercial. While fans will have to wait longer for the release of the Ra‘s next full-length album, The Archive: Live, Lost and Found will have to tide them over in the meantime.
The first four tracks of The Archive have been billed as new, but that’s not entirely true. Rakim has been performing “It’s Nothing” live since at least 2006, and even made appearances on radio in the past. New or not, it’s still a worthy addition to his collection of songs, which, as Ra notes, picks up where Nas‘ “Unauthorized Biography of Rakim” left off: “I went to L.A. to get with Dre to try and bridge the gap and/Take night, mix it with day, I guess it wasn’t meant to happen.” “Hip Hop” is a fairly run-of-the-mill “state of Hip Hop” type song which would, frankly, sound contrived if it wasn’t coming from a bonafide legend. “Love 4 Sale” isn’t a bad song per se, but it’s Rakim out of his element, talking up the ladies. While he manages to come off relatively smooth, LL Cool J he is not. Fortunately, “Word On the Street” has Ra going back to doing what he made him famous in the first place – talking shit about how great he is: “When I’m flowin’, my master craft is demographic – it’s growin/I check the status and let ’em have it, the chosen, Rakim is classic.”
After the new cuts are over, it’s 18 live performances in a row. It’s important to note that Ra isn’t the type of live performer whose music lends itself to a performance in front of 80,000 fans a la a more energetic act like Wu-Tang; rather, Rakim‘s live show hits harder in a smaller, more intimate setting. It is for that reason that the live portion of this album is a surprisingly smooth-sounding experience, with Ra sounding almost as good live as he does on record.
With a vast catalogue to choose from, Ra chose (wisely) to ignore his disappointing second solo album, The Master. Instead, he focuses on his work with Eric B., as well as his first solo outing, The 18th Letter. The essentials are all here: “My Melody,” “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” “Follow the Leader,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” “Paid In Full” and more. The majority of these songs are performed with a great enthusiasm from The R, with the live versions of “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “Guess Who’s Back” being particularly glowing examples. Not only do the beats sound great live, but Ra flows effortlessly over them, while simultaneously hyping up the crowd.
The crowd leads us to The Archive‘s greatest misstep. For whatever reason, it was decided that almost entirely muting the crowd would be a bright idea, but when the most quoted emcee of all time is performing, it’s likely that he’ll be letting the audience fill in some of the words for him. It turns out when Ra does this on the album, the result is an awkward almost-silence. This isn’t a problem when he rhymes most of the words, but for songs where the crowd is given the opportunity to participate more, it becomes quite irritating. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Move the Crowd,” which is more than half near-completely silent crowd-chanting. The decision to silence the crowd is a baffling one, and ruins a handful of performances.
Hip Hop has historically been unkind to its legends. Like it or not, some of the greatest emcees of all time have faded into irrelevance, destined to remain as memories rather than having an opportunity to continue contributing to the culture. While Rakim has certainly done a better job of keeping his name in the game than the emcees that fall into this category, he certainly doesn’t hold the same clout that he used to. In this context, The Archive does exactly what it was meant to do – Rakim‘s live renditions of his classics remind you why you loved his music in the first place, while the new material proves that he’s still got rhymes like a scientist.