Rakim's place near the top of the hip hop pantheon is secure, but that's not enough for him. The God emcee craves the relevance (and the paychecks) of today's stars, and The Seventh Seal is his attempt to repackage his nimble lyricism for a fickle, modern rap audience. His first original work in 10 years, the long-delayed, message-heavy work attempts a delicate balancing act: it tries to merge spiritual themes and middle-aged musings with accessible, modern beats. Miraculously, it works. The production, courtesy of folks including Needlz (the goth-accented "Walk These Streets") Jake One (the mid-tempo stand-out "Won't Be Long") and Ra's associate Nick Wiz (the album's best track, "Holy Are U"), is so fresh and vital that listeners might not notice the heady messages therein.
As for Rakim's flow, it too has matured. Unlike his albums with Eric B. and his solo discs, there's little attempt to dazzle with rhymes that are complex for complexity's sake. Instead, we get substantial-yet-crisply-delivered verses throughout. "A modern day King Tut/ I rap like I've been preserved in time," he says on "Holy Are U." "Spit the holy water/ Touch it, turn it to wine." Though Rakim was previously signed to Aftermath, no Dr. Dre beats made it onto the album, and most of the planned guest appearances were dropped as well. Devoid of gimmicks or big name accessories, the burden falls to Rakim alone, and he turns in a performance worthy of his younger self.