For an album considered to be so influential – Rakim is often said to ‘revolutionize MC’ing’ – it’s amazing how little sounds like it. A lot borrowed Rakim’s ‘smooth’ flow, but that’s one thing. This album’s approach and the rest of his followers are completely different. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.
Paid in Full has little in common with the boom bap era that followed. Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Moon, early Roots cared little how the music sounded. Or, if they did, it was so minimalistic it lost any kind of artistic merit. These were artists who relied on lyrics dense and complex enough to keep you coming. They turned down the musical elements so the lyrics would remain in focus, in a move very reminiscent of Leonard Cohen.
Some of them were successful at that – “N.Y. State of Mind” first grabs you with the quick flow, and then you notice the amount of details and catchy lines that bring its story to life. Some were just okay. Wu-Tang Clan had a macho bullshit charm but a lack of drums. Some were awful, like how the tracks of Things Fall Apart blur together or how Liquid Swords barely has any drums. This approach failed mainly when rappers wanted to convince you how great you are. Despite the rapper telling you over and over that his rhymes are dope and that he’s badass, the music that accompanied him was subdued, smooth and nearly non-existant. The instrumentals of Things Fall Apart and Liquid Swords don’t sound tough or confident but scared to catch your attention.
In Paid in Full, the music echoes Rakim’s sentiment. He’s as good as you heard he is. He’s less dense than GZA, but he’s far more quotable. Density is often a barrier to hide behind, anyway. Rakim sometimes doesn’t need to rhyme. A line like ‘Remember me? The one you got your ideas from?” stings, especially when you realize you know plenty of these lines already. Rakim’s strength is that there is a clear rhythm to his words, a rhythm that invites you more to try to rap along than to marvel at how complex it is.
The music behind helps to make Rakim’s boasts believable. There’s a reason why there are 3 instrumentals here. The beats’ purpose is not to provide background music but to express the same thing Rakim does. The drums are in the front. In “I Ain’t No Joke”, they’re stomping. “Paid in Full” has such a beautiful bassline and break – if someone told me it’s the best Hip-Hop beat he ever heard, I would understand.
When the title-track rolled around, it was clear the true followers of this album weren’t Wu-Tang, Nas or even Chuck D. This where the Big Beat movement started. The danceable break that sounds like it could go on forever in the title-track is what inspired that Properllerheads track from the Matrix and Chemical Brothers’ brilliant debut. It’s no coincidence that Kool Keith sounded more convincing than any rapper when he rode a Prodigy tracK.
There is toughness and confidence expressed in such danceable music. Dancing, after all, requires a level of confidence. Moving catches people’s attention, and their attention could mean negative opinion that some people can’t handle. That’s why people tend to drink before they feel like they can dance. That’s where we get the ‘wallflower’ trope. The rappers that followed turned down this ‘banging beats’ approach, as if dancing was for silly and stupid people. That only made them more musically narrow and scared.
It may seem like a too big conclusion, but the Hip-Hop community’s focus on lyricism always ended up missing a lot of the details. Even music that is driven by lyrics still needs music. You cannot push back the music with hopes the lyrics will become the focus. The focus will only move to how lacking the musical aspects are. Most canonical rappers turn down the musical aspects and all we get are impressive, but boring flows. Paid in Full is great at both worlds, and that’s why it deserves the acclaim.
3.5 breaks out of 5