Let's begin here, a place that seems furthest away from the universe of "The R" (as the veteran rapper Rakim often called himself): Back in the 1960s, the American anthropologist Loren Eiseley famously and poetically wrote that flowers dramatically changed the appearance of the earth 100 million years ago. Before this flower revolution, the earth was dull and monochromatic; after the flowers, there was color everywhere. Eiseley wrote, "A little while ago—about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet—flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color. Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms—the flowering plants. Flowers changed the face of the planet."
I mention this because it comes close to how I see Rakim's impact on the world of rap. Before he came onto the scene in the mid 1980s, rap was very simple and stiff—basically no better than Mother Goose rhymes. True, there was the urban realism of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," and even the futurism of T La Rock's "It's Yours" (Def Jam's first single). But as a whole, there were only two types of rappers: good wack rappers and bad wack rappers. Roxanne Shanté was, for example, good wack; the Real Roxanne was bad wack. In short, nothing was not wack. After Rakim released five groundbreaking hiphop tracks in 1986 and 1987 (in this order: "Eric B. Is President," "I Ain't No Joke," "I Know You Got Soul," "Move the Crowd," and "Paid in Full"), something was finally separated from the monochromatic wack. And for the first time, we could see rhymes in living color. (A quick note: The Beastie Boys were a part of the wack rap moment in hiphop—though of the good variety—and never really parted with it, but preserved it, even to this day, like a kind of fossil. One more note: Listen to "Down with the King" and you will hear the difference between rap's pre-Rakim moment [Run-D.M.C.'s section] and post-Rakim moment [Pete Rock and CL Smooth's section].)
Let me put this another way: Before Rakim, all rap was like listening to a jazz saxophonist playing everything strictly within the structure of "Mary Had a Little Lamb"; after Rakim, rap sounded more like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." With an elasticity that was completely new to the form, Rakim could expand a rhyme to a dizzying length in one line and then compress it into a microsphere in the next. The essence of his accomplishment was to transform rapping into an instrument.
I will now get right down to it and say that Rakim is the greatest rapper of all time. It's not Jay-Z, or Tupac, or Biggie, or Eminem—all of these rappers came on the scene after much of the difficult work had been done. To recognize the highest accomplishment of the art, you have to go back to a rapper who had to completely reinvent the form on his own. That rapper is Rakim. Yes, there were other rappers who might have been more talented than Rakim (history always works like this; there's always someone we have forgotten, someone who could blow our minds out of the sky—I must mention Rammellzee, whose 1983 track "Beat Bop" was not only out of this world, but produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat), but Rakim was the one rapper who became a huge success and was able to sustain his popularity over a wide span of time. After his five initial groundbreakers, he released four more: "Microphone Fiend," "The R," "Lyrics of Fury," and "Follow the Leader." To be the greatest ever, you can't be a flash in the pan or someone who never made it out of obscurity (like Rammellzee, who sadly died in 2010 at the age of 49).
"Follow the Leader" is the greatest track in hiphop history. For one reason, Rakim rhymes about travel like never before—they travel "at magnificent speeds around the universe." (In Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, Mickey Hess described the song as "an event horizon that defined the stock in trade of the rap soloist"—there is no way to improve on that description.) The other reason is the futuristic beat, which was produced by the underappreciated Eric B. Recall the end of the movie Wild Style, one of the founding documents of the movement—it's prophesied that the star of hiphop will not be the graffiti artist or the dancer but the rapper. This certainly did eventually happen, but before the spectacular rise of the rapper, the star of hiphop was the DJ. Though revolutionary for their time, Eric B. and Rakim formed a very traditional unit, which is why in the duo's moniker, the name Eric B. (the DJ) came first and Rakim (the rapper) second. This is also why the first track they released was not called "Rakim Is President," and why even in "Follow the Leader" the rapper makes sure to expend some lines on the superpowers of his DJ: "There's one R in the alphabet/It's a one-letter word and it's about to get/More complex from one rhyme to the next/Eric B. be easy on the flex." This was the old-school way. By the late 1990s, the DJ was completely out of the picture.
"First to ever let a rhyme flow down the Nile," raps Rakim in the DJ Premier–produced track "It's Been a Long Time," which celebrates his achievements as a rap pioneer (it was released in 1997 on the album The 18th Letter). Above all, Rakim was not a poet but a rapper. He did not bring poetry to rap but raised rap, on its own terms, to the condition of art.