In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in celebration of the new Black Keys record, our favorite songs by duos.
One MC and one DJ. It’s rap at its most elemental, proof that anyone can be a pop star so long as they have a microphone, some old vinyl, and a friend. Talent goes a long way toward that, too, but talent can be honed: On Paid In Full, the recorded debut of Eric B & Rakim, Eric B earns his top billing, his ear for melodic hooks and his rhythmic instincts a few paces ahead of Rakim’s slam-poetry flow. A combination of first-time nerves and a rushed production schedule led to the duo accidentally creating a minimalist hip-hop masterpiece with Paid In Full—but the drowsy vibe of Rakim’s vocals are a drag on the proceedings. “I Know You Got Soul” and “Paid In Full” are all-time greats, but I’ll skip past them for later Eric B & Rakim tracks that find the partners on equal footing. Give me the technique-over-all likes of “Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em,” where Rakim’s nimble, tongue-twisting rhymes are just as worthy of lyrical boasts as Eric B’s unpredictable turntablism.
There’s experience backing every measure of “Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em,” but the track still has a raw, frayed wire energy to it. It’s in the lyrical reference to an electrified subway rail, it’s in the grindhouse wah-wah lifted from unlikely hip-hop hero Bob “Angela (Theme From Taxi)” James, and it’s in the way Eric B and Rakim work like prizefighters who spend eight hours a day at the speed bag. Every punch is perfectly timed and expertly aimed, and while such technical proficiency could suck the life out of the “Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em,” there’s still room for surprise. There has to be, given the atmosphere of suspense created by an uncredited Large Professor, a creepy-crawly soundtrack that’s like The Bomb Squad scoring a giallo movie. And while there’s plenty of generic bragging throughout, I still get a laugh when “I’m hard to read like graffiti” peeks out from Rakim’s torrent of lyrics. If “Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em” is merely a display of virtuosity, it’s some damn compelling virtuosity.