It’s challenging to find anything to say about the legendary hip-hop pair Eric B. & Rakim that hasn’t been said before. Don’t Sweat the Technique, their fourth and last album released in 1992 was a respectable ending to a great journey by the duo. It also set high anticipations for the inevitable solo record from veteran lyricist Rakim.
Those who participated in the making of Rakim’s debut were unhappy with the fact that Rakim spent years procrastinating. The 18th Letter finally dropped in 1997 with a lot of suspense, and it didn’t disappoint his fans and people who trusted his skills.
The pantheon of prominent rap duos has proven for years that the charm is often lost when the rapper decides to move out and work with new producers, usually out of need when the group splits up. Guru, CL Smooth, and Parrish Smith were never gonna sound as good without DJ Premier, Pete Rock, or Erick Sermon providing their beats, but this wasn’t possible to be an issue for Rakim.
In the first years of Eric B. & Rakim’s cooperation, there has been a doubt in the rap scene about what exactly Eric B. brought to the table. It’s now widely acknowledged that Marley Marl played a considerable role in producing the classic debut Paid in Full (1987) and that Large Professor and his mentor, ‘Paul C’ McKasty, made a serious contribution to later albums.
Rakim had effectively rapped over beats by other producers, and would still ring fresh as a solo artist. There would have been no issue finding beatmakers ready to provide him with their beats.
The 18th Letter contains assistance from DJ Premier (“It’s Been a Long Time,” “New York (Ya Out There)”) and Pete Rock (“The Saga Begins,” “When I’m Flowin’”).
You’d also maybe expect to find beats by Large Professor, Diamond D, and Buckwild, but none of them contributed. Instead, perhaps the surprise was the appearance of DJ Clark Kent, maybe because Rakim was looking for a more modern sound.
Despite this, there's something distinctly reflective about The 18th Letter. It's self-referential, such as in "It’s Been a Long Time" where Rakim repeats his "I came in the door / I said it before" line from "Eric B. Is President" while DJ Premier cuts up samples from that same song and "I Know You Got Soul.”
It goes more profound though, with an ambiance at particular points that harkens around an era of rap before the late ‘80s period when Eric B. & Rakim reached their peak.
The album was a somewhat odd direction to take regarding this was Rakim's attempt at making himself relevant again to those already aware of his music, and presenting himself to a new generation and part of listeners at the same time.
If the use of DJ Clark's beats was an attempt to capture a younger demographic, it was arguably a step too far for some. The gifted producer was in-demand at the time having achieved major club hits in the run-up to 1997, including Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s “Players Anthem”, Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Sky’s The Limit” by The Notorious B.I.G. The instrumentals he provided to The 18th Letter are all perfect, but the R&B crossover “Stay a While” doesn’t work well with Rakim's style.
There are better shots at peeking forward elsewhere on the album, however. The aforementioned "I came in the door / I said it before" line on "It’s Been a Long Time" ends with “but no I ain’t down with Eric B. no more”—a declaration of purpose that Rakim was now hooking into a new chapter of his career.
Rakim would go on to drop two other respected albums (1999’s The Master and 2009’s The Seventh Seal) but neither was as good as The 18th Letter. There have been rumors of an Eric. B & Rakim reunion in 2016, but nothing happened yet.