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Rakim brings back-to-future flow to A3C Festival 

Leader of the true school seeks return to relevance with The Seventh Seal

Considered by many to be the greatest rapper of all time, Rakim's hip-hop legacy is bulletproof. Scores of MCs have come and gone in his time — in fact, a whole generation has come and gone since his last album, 1999's The Master. After more than a half-decade of delays, his long-expected work The Seventh Seal is finally due Nov. 17, according to the rapper's camp. (Fans have every reason to be skeptical of that date, but we got Only Built For Cuban Linx...Pt. II so anything's possible, right?)

To give an idea of just how old some of these Rakim tracks are, he imparts that he had to edit out a "2004" reference in one of them. "I've got some songs on there that are from 2004, some that might be from 2003, as well as some from 2009," he says. "But I don't think you'll be able to tell [the difference]. I try not to reference certain things people might be doing or wearing today in my songs, so they stand the test of time."

Classic Eric B. & Rakim albums such as Paid in Full and Follow the Leader sound timeless largely due to Rakim's futuristic-sounding, mesmerizing flow. He and fellow Long Islander Eric B. revolutionized hip-hop's sing-songy, elementary style with innovative sampling, scratching and intricate rhyme schemes.

But after parting ways in the early '90s (the two are on speaking terms but refuse to perform with each other), the God MC has had difficulty maintaining his relevancy. The Master was not particularly well-received critically or commercially, and the making of The Seventh Seal has been almost comically futile. Once intended for release via Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, the album is now set for release on Rakim's own Ra Records and will not feature any Dre beats since the two split years ago over creative differences. Nor will it include songs produced by Rakim himself or a guest spot from Akon, both of which were planned at one point. Instead, expect appearances from Maino and Busta Rhymes, and beats from producers including Seattle's Jake One and longtime Rakim associate Nick Wiz.

A concept album based around end-times teachings from the Book of Revelation and his interest in numerology, The Seventh Seal focuses on man's biblical attempts to gain knowledge of himself and his place in the kingdom of God. Rakim's manager Matthew Kemp imparts that during the recording process, Rakim kept four different versions of the Bible in the studio — not to mention the Quran and various physics tomes. "The Seventh Seal is about people being conscious of what they do," Rakim says, "and being conscious of their surroundings."

It's composed largely of fictional stories about a disparate cast of characters. "Man Above," for example, follows an ex-convict attempting to reform himself, while "Working For You" concerns a man logging extra hours at work for the sake of his lady. The track samples Columbus, Ga.-native and blues artist Robert Cray's "I Forgot To Be Your Lover"; Rakim says he "grew up on" Cray and that his sounds blend perfectly with hip-hop.

He adds that he went out of his way to avoid popular music gimmicks and emphasize melody. The Seventh Seal is his attempt to "bring back the essence of the genre" and the style he's known for popularizing.

Various leaks (including the stunning "Holy Are You") indicate that the album should continue in the "true school" mold, and, viewed as such, its timing actually makes a lot of sense. The genre is experiencing something of a resurgence, after all, which will be on full display at the A3C Festival, where Rakim is a Saturday headliner.

In its efforts to become "the South by Southwest of the hip-hop industry" (in the words of organizer Brian Knott), the event has expanded its size and scope for its fifth year. It now features nine stages over three nights, plus graphic arts, film and fashion events.

The musical lineup is heavily weighted toward both old-school artists such as DJ Premier, Diamond D and Buckshot, and those with the old-school mentality, including People Under The Stairs, Kidz In the Hall and 9th Wonder. Being that rap festivals tend to focus either on what's very current or what's very old, A3C should compellingly split the difference.    

Rakim promises to perform both old tracks and new ones, but he remains concerned with being relegated to hip-hop's oldies circuit. Though he identifies with the true school tag, he bristles at being characterized as old school. "I know I've been out for a while, but I feel that what I'm spittin' is today," he says. "I don't feel that it's old school. I feel I can be just as futuristic as any other rapper that's out today."

Should we ever get a chance to hear it, The Seventh Seal will make or break his argument. No matter what, Rakim will continue to be an icon for many more generations of up-and-coming MCs. Still, it's quite clear that he would rather be competing with them than hearing their praises.

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