Since the dawn of hip-hop, the relationship between MC and DJ has been one of the most singular and traditional in a genre defined by flouting convention. In 1987, New York-based duo Eric B. & Rakim released their first studio album, Paid In Full. Best known for the song “Eric B. Is President,” the album matched minimalist production and extensive sampling (including James Brown and artist Fonda Rea) layered under Rakim’s pioneering, game-changing flow, setting the scene for its follow-up, Follow The Leader.
Paid In Full was a remarkable introduction to a duo who would prove to be among the most formidable in hip-hop. It yielded five radio singles, including the album’s titular track and ‘Eric B. Is President’, but stalled at No.58 on the Billboard 200. And while the album attracted legions of fans, mainstream critics offered a mostly lukewarm response. Still, Rakim’s lyricism drew praise, and the bar was set high for the duo’s sophomore effort. Only a year later, under a new contract with MCA Records, Eric B & Rakim released Follow The Leader, on July 26, 1988.
Produced and recorded at Power Play Studios in New York City, Follow The Leader featured musical contributions from Rakim’s brother Stevie Blass Griffin, who played a variety of instruments on the record. A sophomore album is always viewed as a test of an artist’s talent. One good album can be a fluke, but to repeat it speaks to the ability to grow, change and develop as an artist. With Follow The Leader, Eric B. & Rakim did not disappoint.
Building on the burgeoning talent displayed on Paid In Full, the album sees increasingly complex production on the part of Eric B., who composes tracks laden with sly and dexterous samples that beautifully support Rakim’s lyrics without competing with them. Lyrically, Rakim’s presence on Follow The Leader represents a significant evolution in the rapper’s skills. Honing his talent for creating a compelling internal rhyme within each line, Rakim doubled down on both the speed of his delivery and the content itself. He tosses off rhyme after rhyme, riding the beat with a tonality that manages to be simultaneously urgent and coolly detached. On “No Competition,” Rakim raps about himself:
No one in my path can withstand
Under pressure the wrath of a swift man
You name the day, the grounds could be neutral
Speak your piece, the feeling’s mutual
We can go topic from topic whenever I drop it
Try to stop it
His braggadocio was fully earned and supported by critics and the culture at large. Follow The Leader was hailed as one of the musical achievements of the year and was considered by nearly every critic to be superior to Paid In Full.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, music critic Jonathan Gold praised Rakim’s lyrical dexterity and vocal restraint: “His keen rhymes [are] all the more devastating for being near-whispered where lesser rappers would shout.” Follow The Leader made it to No.22 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart and spawned four singles: “Follow The Leader,” “Microphone Fiend,” “The R” and “Lyrics Of Fury.” The album also went gold the year of its release.
The MC/producer relationship is a tenuous one. If a producer’s beats are too heavy, too complex or too repetitive, they risk drowning out even the most powerful lyrics. In the worst cases, it renders the lyrics trivial, the rhyme irrelevant. Integral to the successful alchemy on Follow The Leader are Eric B. and Rakim’s individual artistic skills, but most critical to their collaboration is the way they work together, pushing and pulling, sharing the aural space to allow both of their contributions to yield a rich, endlessly layered product far better than either of them could have achieved alone.