1987 Week: Eric B. & Rakim bring fearlessness and innovation to hip-hop on ‘Paid in Full’

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 debut album Paid in Full is considered one of rap’s most quintessential masterpieces. Released 14 years after the birth of hip-hop, the New York duo came to epitomize the culture they helped shape. The record, which features classic tracks like “I Ain’t No Joke” and “I Know You Got Soul”, introduced us to the ambitious and innovative stylings of a young emcee named William Griffin and his unwavering DJ Eric Barrier.

The record also cemented Rakim as one of the greatest lyricists of all time.

Rakim’s cadenced and masterful flow permeated beats effortlessly; his command of internal rhyme coupled with his disciplined delivery of bars set the perfect stage for ideas almost too simplistic for hip-hop. The album’s cover — in which the pair sport custom matching Dapper Dan jackets and gold rope chains while conspicuously standing in front of an image of dollar bills — implies grandiosity. However, Rakim’s “master plan” (which he thoroughly outlines in the album’s title track) is more bare-boned than that: “Cause I don’t like to dream/About getting paid/So I dig into the books of the/Rhymes that I made/So now’s a test to see if I got pull/Hit the studio cause I’m paid in full.”

What made Eric B. & Rakim’s prominence even more rewarding was how Paid In Full stood in contrast to other albums by their peers that came out that same year. Public Enemy also released their first record, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, which — with Chuck D’s visceral disdain for American political systems and Flava Flav’s abrasive, over the top persona — catapulted them as the faces of Black resistance in the late-’80s and early-’90s. Ice-T’s debut album, Rhyme Pays, also set 1987 ablaze with its graphic sexual and violent content. Combined with the N.W.A. compilation, N.W.A. and the Posse (serving as the prelude to the group’s debut album Straight Outta Compton that came out the following year), gangsta rap was beginning to dominate the airwaves and change how we consumed music entirely.

But Paid In Full was perilous in its own right. While Eric B. & Rakim’s creative counterparts were using incendiary phrases to not only relay the Black experience but to convey their frustrations and fears, the pair opted for a different route. Rakim’s flair for imagery painted a picture through words that America hadn’t seen before: A Black man reaping financial and social wealth from his creativity, determination, and simply being the best at what he does as he described on the album’s first single “Eric B. Is President”: ‘I came in the door, I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more/But it’s biting me, fighting me, inviting me to rhyme/I can’t hold it back, I’m looking for the line.”

Although their debut album was released 30 years ago, Eric B. & Rakim have managed to influence rap for decades and have been quoted and sampled by rappers spanning from Mobb Deep to Lil Wayne. They also are revered as one of hip-hop’s most important artists for the way they redefined the genre. The duo held an anniversary concert celebrating Paid In Full just last month at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where artists like Ice-T, Flava Flav, EPMD, and Lovebug Starski paid tribute to the icons.

Paid In Full, like any notable body of work, transcends the passing of time with its perpetually relevant message. And without the fearlessness and innovation of Eric B. & Rakim, hip-hop simply just wouldn’t be the same.

Follow Candace McDuffie on Instagram @cmcduffie1.