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Oddisee

This DC-based rapper has maintained a cult following longer than some hip-hop characters can keep a major label interested, yet he’s never made a full foray into the mainstream. Melding conscious, thought-provoking raps with string-heavy instrumental backing and traditional melodic structures, the lack of radio material is assuredly part of his pigeonholed status. Still, the man born Amir Mohamed el Khalifa raps with the power of predecessors like Rakim and borrows from the sonic junkyard of groups like A Tribe Called Quest.

Sat., Oct. 12, 8 p.m., 2013

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Wiz Khalifa+A$AP Rocky

Yes, artists like A$AP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa grew up on Bone Thugs, Cash Money, and Dipset, instead of on Rakim and Kane. But still, Rocky was actually named after the former, and Wiz Khalifa is a name that should make any fake Five Percenter smile. As for Trinidad James, wasn’t there gold everywhere in pre-colonial Africa? Didn’t Nas say as much in “I Can”? Maybe James listened and learned. In any case, tempus fugit, old heads. Pass the mic.

Tue., Aug. 6, 6 p.m., 2013

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Rakim+EPMD+Funkmaster Flex

Some of the New York metro area’s golden-age hip-hop heroes show off their wares today. Long Island–born Rakim, with then-partner Eric B., turned rap on its ear in 1987 with his single “Paid in Full,” and the duo released the classic Follow the Leader the following year. EPMD from Suffolk County are rap’s businessmen, or, more precisely, every record they’ve released from 1988’s Strictly Business onward has had business in the title. And the Bronx’s Funkmaster Flex, who started his career in ’87 and now DJs on Hot 97, has four gold mixtapes to his name, including one that went to No. 4.

Sun., Aug. 21, 3 p.m., 2011

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SURVIVAL OF THE ILLEST

To say that hip-hop has gone through an evolution is like saying that Rakim has occasionally bragged–it doesn’t quite capture the enormity. (Hey, if Rev Run had attempted the crooked-wing emo musings of Kanye three decades ago, he would’ve had met a heretic’s reception.) The Rap Guide to Evolution celebrates the scope of humanity’s existence through creator-rapper Baba Brinkman’s nonstop flow, ruminating on both Darwinism and the conscious complexities of hip-hop culture. The show, his follow-up to the audacious “Rap Canterbury Tales,” won Brinkman an award at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival; we say he’s due for a Coolest Teacher trophy, too.

Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 5 & 7:30 p.m. Starts: June 17. Continues through Oct. 2, 2011

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Rakim’s Second Coming

The greatest rapper of all time? It used to be an easy call. A prodigiously gifted rhymer from way out in Wyandanch, Long Island, Rakim introduced himself in 1986 alongside DJ Eric B with the double-sided “Eric B Is President/My Melody” 12-inch and helped inaugurate hip-hop’s ballyhooed Golden Era. Decked out in custom-made Dapper Dan suits scored from 125th Street, he hung with the original 50 Cent (a/k/a Kelvin Martin, a stick-up kid who terrorized Fort Greene) and befriended Mike Tyson, yet he also flaunted lyrics that made him sound philosophically deeper than any rapper who dared to pick up a mic before or after him. Each syllable sounded preordained—there’s barely a line from Eric B and Rakim’s 1987 classic Paid in Full that hasn’t since been quoted, paraphrased, or appropriated as the basis for a completely different song by another rapper. He nominated himself the “God MC,” and we all agreed.

But by the time Eric B and Rakim signed off on their fourth classic album (Don’t Sweat the Technique) in 1992, hip-hop had become increasingly comfortable with its mass-commercial potential, and style began to overshadow substance. Dr. Dre helped Snoop Dogg bring gangsta rap’s menace to the suburbs. 2Pac showed that cult of personality and a reckless rock star attitude could be as intoxicating as the music. And in 1996, Jay-Z, on the rebound after initially faltering in the days when Rakim was still king, synthesized the idea of the rapper not as artist, but as a business-minded man who just so happened to rap: a mindset followed by almost every breakout rapper since.

Suddenly, Rakim’s use of drug imagery to describe his addiction to rhyming (“I fiend for a mic like heroin/Soon as the bass kicks, I need another hit”) sounded quaint cast against Jay’s corporate repositioning of rap as merely a living analogy of the crack game. And so the criteria for hip-hop greatness morphed: Now, message-board squabbles are as likely to focus on a rapper’s ability to coin hooks, stay relevant, run a clothing line, and move units on the anniversaries of national terrorist disasters as on their pure ability to rhyme.

It is into this alien arena that Rakim is attempting to reassert his mastery with The Seventh Seal, an album seven years in the making and his first since 1999’s The Master. He’s aware of the mammoth challenge he faces: “I definitely had to keep in mind there’s a world out there that don’t know me, so I need to let people know that I’m new and improved,” he notes, chatting on the phone while driving to Manhattan from his Connecticut refuge. “But if you do too much reintroducing, you get away from the statement you want to make. I had to stick to my guns and write what my heart was telling me, not what I thought would be perceived as ‘hot.’ “

The album’s production credits back up that idea. Having endured an unproductive spell shackled to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint (“We had two different ideas of what the album should be”), Rakim has forgone the usual procession of super-producers drafted to secure him a pop radio hit. Instead, it’s a thoroughly underground—and, at times, unknown—roster, with Seattle’s Jake One and early-era Common cohort Y-Not the most recognizable names. “That was a conscious decision,” he says proudly. “I had to find producers that fit my normal form. There are a lot of hot producers that are out right now, but a lot of times, a track that’s good for Snoop Dogg or Lil Wayne is not good for Rakim.”

But The Seventh Seal only gets the musical formula half-right, bending to modernity by incorporating a slew of sung hooks. At his regal peak, Rakim’s songs were all about the verses—any concession to a chorus was an idle afterthought. “I’ve never been a big hook-oriented rapper—when I was doing my thing, you’d just sample a word or something,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll write three verses before the hook is even considered. I know I can always go out and hire someone to sing a hook.” But while 50 Cent (the other one) and Jay-Z have long since mastered the chorus as an art form, many of the refrains on The Seventh Seal are uninspiring. The 2009 incarnation of Rakim might be sermonizing about hidden Biblical secrets about to kick into effect any day now, but after three Tracey Horton refrains—plus more warbling from Destiny Griffin and Samuel Christian—you wonder how much of his faithful congregation will still be listening.

That’s not to suggest he has lost his lyrical touch. When recording the first single “Holy Are You,” Rakim surrounded himself with a range of religious tomes, all full of annotations and notes scribbled in the margins, to ensure his message was factually accurate. And on the rugged “How to Emcee,” he sounds magisterial as he reminds the world, “I wrote some of the illest rhymes ever put together/Soon as I make ’em, rappers take ’em/Analyze ’em for days and paraphrase ’em.” He’s right. And, tellingly, the far superior chorus consists primarily of more rapping.

Rakim says he wanted to “speak about the problems in the world today.” But you suspect those who need to hear his message most are happy guffawing along to Gucci Mane, while those who remember his peak will balk at Seventh Seal‘s attempts to sweeten the sentiment. Still, he vows that there’s another album coming next year, and that it will mark “a return to what raw hip-hop is.” Drop the coterie of crooners on chorus duties, and he might already be there.

Rakim plays B.B. King’s November 19

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A Soldier’s Hagiography

The buildup to the God Rakim Allah’s performance at B.B. King’s was so fabulously alive with chest-beating and biblical portent that the real thing could have been underwhelming. Serving the Gotham underground’s finest ingredients— testosterone, community, nostalgia, and stage-hogging skillz—Killah Priest and Immortal Technique freestyled (IT: “I don’t put a hole in your dome/I go Israeli and put a hole in your home”), dead prez’s M1 punched with panache, Furious Fiver Raheem joined Cold Crush Brother Grandmaster Caz, and Kid Capri went up into the wheels’ ass-crack to grind out noises that would’ve scared the devil out of Shocklee and Stockhausen. By the time Ra hit so did everybody else who’d been in the wings. One longed to see that stage become as stark and dramatic as his rhymes, but the desire to bask in the glow cast by the God was too great for even Kool Herc.

This wasn’t maddening only because, like all icons, Rakim helps his people remember why they love themselves. And we not caught up in the Jay/50/Puffy matrix needed an occasion to feel good about New York hiphop even if that feeling owed more to BET-free memories than to innovation. With Capri keeping Ra on the clock even for the meta-epic “Follow the Leader,” all the classics got a clipped, rapid-fire airing. Ra ripped “Microphone Fiend,” “I Know You Got Soul,” “Know the Ledge,” and “Paid in Full” like a master carpenter, efficiently breaking down his wise, virile, relaxed technique. The logic and the brilliance of his formulations remained indisputable, the live element rendered them novel, and his freestyle bit was rock solid. But sound fundamentals don’t necessarily raise goosebumps. Rakim stills looks young and trim, but his swagger and gritty gravitas have taken on the burden of middle age—he spoke of losing his mother, and alluded to past actions (those gun charges?) he’s thought twice about. Refreshing maturity in a field where perp walk and photo op have become nauseatingly synonymous.

Vulnerability trumping hagiography—can this really be hiphop? The room wanted Moses or more (“ARE YOU READY FOR THE GODDDD???!!!!!”), but it got a flesh-and-blood Black fortysomething with other fish to fry. The grownass man on the mic now measures his life by how he alone, like all street vets, got to carry those war wounds off the field of battle rhymes.

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Signifying Nada

Sure, Will Smith’s the one married to Jada, but underneath the skin we’re brothers. I’m an old muhfluckuh who don’t need to be trying to rap like he’s an old muhfluckuh who don’t need to be trying to rap. Making Will’s Lost and Found a whole lot of huffing and puffing signifying nada, the lamest album that’ll be released this year. It violates an immutable law of the celebrity universe—that Hollywood actors don’t get to pretend they got flow any more than they get to pretend they can rock and roll.

Some things, like having story, bounce, and wit in your voice, can’t be grafted on like hair, makeup, and wardrobe. And Will never had style as an MC, just annoying and cloying bubblegum shtick. It served him well at 17, but the Fresh Prince wasn’t built to age gracefully. Even in movies where he’s playing a grownass man on major steroids, I keep expecting him to bust out with “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” “Summertime,” that top-down-in-the-sunshine song where he tried to flip it like a happy-go-lucky Rakim, that grooved me, I’m not ashamed to say. But now homeboy wants to be Rakim, Eminem, and Fitty too. Lost and Found got not one but two wannabe “In da Club”s, like we need to see our Cosby-esque Unka Will propositioning young hotties with lines like “How come you don’t wanna dance—you shy?” Uh uh. Noooo. Sounds like borderline sexual harassment. Yuck. And if you’re a Black man so unkool you must counterattack Eminem for ranking and filing on you, why ape Lil’ 8 Mile’s style? For god’s sake pull yourself together man.

The most deeply felt thing here—there has to be something—is when Will is unable to answer his son about whether there were people in those buildings he saw fall on 9-11. Pursuant to that, “Ms. Holy Roller” goes after a cheatingass flame who found Jesus and wants the world to know it’s going to hell. Only Will ends up comparing her religious zeal to that which allegedly brought down the twin towers. Problem is, other than making us suffer Black indie cinema like Woman Thou Art Loosed and taking under-the-pulpit money from white supremacists against gay marriage, Black evangelicals seem a pretty toothless lot, dude. Though I hope they burn in hell.

Will, I beg of you. Cease and desist making imitation hip-hop albums. Stop your dreadful impersonation of an MC. If this is a sickness, get help. Love your culture.

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Pop the Question, Jigga

Unlike the B.Lo affair (so ubiquitous it practically has its own action figures), whatever is going on between Beyoncé Knowles and Jay-Z is under the radar. A few sightings at Knicks games, a possible holiday in the sun, but no public acknowledgement that Young Hove and Miss Hottie are an item. Of course sometimes you don’t need Access Hollywood to know what’s up. Just check the credits on Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé’s solo CD. Jigga’s featured on two tracks—the playful shout-out to bad boys and the good girls who love them (“That’s How You Like It”) and the number-one jam of the summer (“Crazy in Love”), the video for which boasts Bruckheimer-worthy pyro (teen son: “Why are they blowing up that car?” mother: “Because they can afford to”) and Beyoncé looking so unbelievably luscious she gave this heterosexual a fleeting desire to fuck her.

Rappers on r&b tracks ain’t new. But word to Jody Watley and Rakim: a hip-hop star snagging two guest spots? And then sharing co-writing credit on two other songs, neither of which he’s on? Oh baby. Even with the fees he can charge, S. Carter’s participation feels less like a check (maybe he gave Beyoncé a deal) than a commitment.

I could be wrong. All this could be business and smart pop moves; but if it ain’t Jay that Beyoncé is feeling (and her coyness on the subject supports the gossip) then some man has got Miss Fat Booty wide open, because this girl is in l-o-v-e.

Standing next to the other chicks in Destiny’s Child (always in the middle like Diana Ross) and wearing those glitzy Vegas-stripper outfits her mom designed, the teenage Beyoncé was already hot. Yet her sexiness seemed like an accessory she was borrowing. Now, at 22, Beyoncé looks like a woman who’s getting some (and if she isn’t, then there’s no hope for the rest of us), and sounds like it too.

There’s a sweaty passion to “Hip Hop Star,” featuring OutKast’s Big Boi and Sleepy Brown and co-written by Jay. Produced by Beyoncé (she helmed most of the album along with Scott Storch and Rich Harrison), “Hip Hop Star” is a soft wet come on—B asks over a gently swaggering track if you’re man enough to hang with a hip-hop star. Yeah. Beyoncé’s got it like that. Sexier still is the ballad “Speechless.” Replete with porn-flick guitars and whispery, lick-your-lips vocals, “Speechless” is, as the song lets you know, about “lighting candles, making love all night,” and giving it up to that one boy who knows how to do you right.

Which, judging by “Crazy in Love,” is Jay-Z. But hell, even if it’s about Beyoncé’s freaking cat, this is about as good as it gets: dope in the clubs. Hot on the radio. Produced by former B-lister Harrison (best known for Amerie’s “Why Don’t We Fall in Love”), “Crazy in Love” has a beat so infectious, so insistent, it could drive bin Laden out of that cave. For his part Jay is, well, Jay—stringing together metaphors (“I’m a star like Ringo”) with what-me-worry glee. Beyoncé? She smolders as much as her man chills. She rides the off-center drum breaks and pungent horns (Harrison hails from D.C., and the go-go influence is undeniable) and admits, “got me hoping you’d page me right now/hoping your kiss will save me right now.” It’s a love song with no shame and its naked need all but makes up for the hidden track “Daddy” a/k/a “A Love Song to My Manager,” which may be a first. It’s nice that Beyoncé appreciates her pops but it’s hard not to cringe as she coos, “I want my unborn son to be like my daddy/I want my husband to be like my daddy/there’s no one like my daddy.” Jay! Put a damn ring on this chick’s finger already, OK?

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The Bridge Is Still Over

Every once in a while I tune in to the Zulu Nation station in my mind and hear my version of hip-hop. It’s kinda old school, louder then a bomb, and tougher then leather. But instead of Big Bank Hank’s yes-yes-y’all’s, someone’s dropping Rakim’s science with M.O.P.’s temper. The P. Brothers are technically from England, but their music is all Bronx. Or should I say “Bronx,” an imaginary land where the men dance, the women are named Roxanne, and members of Brand Nubian have their faces printed on currency. Their way-too-brief EP, Heavy Bronx Experience Vol. 2, was clearly made under the influence of early Boogie Down Productions, late John Bonham (as in dead, not In Through the Out Door), Marley Marl, and Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Tripping.”

These are the breaks: Paul S. and Ivory make up the PB’s, two white guys from Nottingham, working in what seems to be a surging British hip-hop scene (check for Def Tex, Roots Manuva, and Rodney P.). This record practices the all-important rap custom: Take the good parts and leave the rest. So it’s decked out in gold chains, loud drums, and offers of “disco treats,” while Fabolous flossing and Atari keyboards ride the bench.

A crew of unknown MCs comes along for the ride. Cappo, a young Nottingham mic fiend who spits like he heard Kool G Rap once and has never been the same since, walks off with the belt. He carves up the EP’s bugged-out, cannon-drummed highlight, “Nottingham Bronx.” A “worshipping atheist-existentialist,” Cappo sounds like he’s rapping through a soup can and a piece of string (in a good way), daring “you should retaliate” while the P. Brothers ring bells and scratch the word “Bronx” until you think it means “heaven.” The record ends with “Science,” wherein The Condor, The Baron, and Moe Brandy (try those on, Ghostface) give vocodered shout outs while a woman has an orgasm in the background. If you’re still breathing, you’re feeling almost as good as she does.

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Prophecy Fulfilled

I was forewarned, and chose not to take heed. You know, how prophecy can get mofos all wound up like Chicken Little with the sky fallin—while you standin there, like, “uh-huh.” Sittin in the back of a music business course at Fordham Law, mindin my own, some whiteboy was talkin about how he discovered this prodigious 20-year-old hip-hop soulman from Richmond, Virginia. “U Will Know,” from the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack? He wrote and produced it, and my amped classmate claimed to have signed him to EMI. The whiteboy was Brian Koppleman, son of Charles Koppleman, former CEO of EMI. The kid, naturally, was D’Angelo.

Seven months later, on the midnight tube from Camden Town to a flat at Belsize Park in London, my mind was still trippin on D’Angelo live, sold out at the Jazz Café. My Brown Sugar summer of ’95 had held enough pointed tableaux as it was: like twistin Ls with my man Aleijuan up in sunny Harlem for Jazzmobile Wednesdays at Grant’s Tomb, in a parked Chevy with girls sittin on the hood, head-noddin in the mix with D’Angelo talkin bout “Soft like an angel, like the feathers laying on a dove/Touch me with your soul love till I lose control.” Then in London I jostled beside Chaka Khan and Lenny Kravitz, peering over heads in a limited-seating situation, peeping this Southern chile runnin wild behind his Rhodes through the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thing,” Al Green’s “I’m So Glad You’re Mine,” and Smokey’s “Cruisin’.” Prophecy fulfilled can sneak up on ya.

Exactly one day shy of a year later, Tupac Shakur returned to the essence—on a Friday the 13th evening on which Giorgio Armani hosted a gig for D’Angelo downtown at the Armory. D’Angelo entered with a mighty healthy Vivica Fox on his arm, Armanied down. He dedicated songs to Pac all night. By this point, everyone knew the deal.

A songwriter and musician holding equal reverence for the tortured, sanctified romanticism of Marvin Gaye and the nth-degree astral-plane metaphors of Rakim, D was a consummate rhythm-and-blues man for these desolate times. Wild SeedWild Flower from Dionne Farris, Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s Plantation Lullabies, and Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe had already been speaking to the new black aesthetic. But when D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar appeared from the ether, it set the tone for future multiplatinum joints from Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill by parading the inevitable fusion of hip-hop and soul, from a kaya-blessed brother just as likely to freestyle on the mic—Michael D’Angelo Archer had been discovered emceeing with his cousins on a demo—as improvise a Moog solo.

Then he disappeared for five years.

** The Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson first captured D’Angelo’s attention at a concert by tapping out the beat to “Four,” a little-known track from Madhouse, Prince’s late-’80s jazz fusion project. ?uestlove recently remarked that by collaborating on Voodoo, he’s fullfilling his fantasy of playing Revolution drummer Bobby Z to D’Angelo’s Prince. D’s falsetto plays the “Do Me Baby”-era chocolate-seduction Prince role on “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” just like I now get to play the Greil Marcus role (hush yo mouth), dissecting D’Angelo’s looong-awaited second record. But beyond all the elder/ancestor worship, what is Voodoo actually worth, and what does it sound like after D’s Sade/Michael Jackson-length hiatus?

Let’s take it from the sections of Voodoo that make you smile. Like the airy echo at the end of “The Line” (“I gotta put it on the line,” he sings, “line” fading out like remnants of a sweet dream) and “One Mo’ Gin” (vocalizing “ah-AH-ah-AH-ah-AH-ah-AH-ah . . . ” to the same tender effect). Or the omnipresent party people channeled in from “What’s Going On” and “Voodoo Chile” (Voodoo was recorded at Electric Lady), laughin and carryin on all over “Chicken Grease” (where D quotes Rakim from “I Know You Got Soul”). Or the false endings: the spirited jam following “One Mo’ Gin” and “Booty,” tacked onto “Greatdayindamornin’.” Or the backward guitar solos (at least they sound backward) centering “Africa” and “The Root.” Not to mention Voodoo‘s coda, a few seconds of chopped-up track snippets—also run backward—after the disc’s closing song. However self-conscious, Voodoo sets out to be heard as an Album—in the tradition of past masterpieces from Marvin, Jimi, Stevie, and Prince.

“In the name of love and hope she took my shield and sword,” D’Angelo earnestly chants in “The Root.” “From the pit of the bottom that knows no floor/Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine/From the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” Hifalutin language, admittedly—but the best songs here have a lyrical narrative that can actually be digested and emotionally felt, sadly rare for Hot 97 r&b. “The Root” is about D losin his mojo; some vengeful woman done worked a root on him, and guitarist Charlie Hunter has his nimble fingers all over it. “One Mo’ Gin” is about reconciling with an ex (“I miss your smile, your mouth, your laughter”), and powered by a hypnotic, sturdy bass groove and grinding organ that are sustained through almost the entire album. “The Line” could be about his MIA status (“Will I hang or get left hangin?/Will I fall off or is it bangin?/I say it’s up to God”), or about anyone facing doubters with a revolver loaded with talent and self-confidence (“I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger/I’m gonna pull it, and then we gon’ see/What the deal/I’m for real”). D’Angelo references the Five Percent Nation in “Devil’s Pie” (“85 are dumb and blind/A third of people compromise”), callin out the vast majority ignorant of the ways of the world, while preachin against deadly sins like “materialistic greed and lust” over a DJ Premier beat. Great stuff.

There were rumors of D’Angelo covering Prince’s “Adore” on Voodoo, rather than the decent Roberta Flack track “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (not featuring Lauryn Hill, despite what you’ve read elsewhere). But “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is a far grander surprise, the most spiritedballad of D’s career despite its Dirty MindControversy copy-catechisms.(Prince himself once similarly recorded “Make Your Mama Happy” to prove a point to ex-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin about Sly Stone; point probably being, “I can rock this style, too.”)

The critics who picked apart Sign o’ the Times in 1987 for being uneven are the same critics who now cite the double album as the pinnacle of Prince’s career. I ain’t goin out like that. Even with its heavy-handed emphasis on groove over melody, the majority of songs topping a self-indulgent six minutes, and D’Angelo not really singing enough, Voodoo is still that shit. Like Prince somewhere between For You and Dirty Mind, Marvin somewhere between Soulful Moods and What’s Going On, or Lauryn somewhere between Blunted on Reality and Miseducation, D’Angelo is striding on the path toward revealing his true self; with Voodoo, he’s halfway there.

But no apologetic “at least he’s trying” justification summary here. If you let it, Voodoo can be spellbinding. Fly in the face of prophecy at your own peril.