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Paid in Full is both a song and an album by hip-hop duo Eric B and Rakim, released in 1987. This write-up only covers the song. Rakim is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best rapper, ever, and the debut album makes the case almost by itself. And the title track on that album was in turn making a big part of the case for the album. Although I dislike lists of the "greatest of all time", I would probably choose this song as perhaps the best, and most representative hip-hop song and lyric of all time.

Which might seem like a strong statement: is there anything in this song to compare with the militant rhetoric of Public Enemy or KRS-One, or was it a popular stadium anthem like the songs of Run-DMC or Snoop Dogg, or was it a convoluted, emotional lyric like those performed by Nas or The Wu-Tang Clan? It was none of these, and is actually noteworthy for its short length (the song was only about four minutes, and Rakim's single verse on the song is about 59 seconds long) and lyrical simplicity. Only its subject matter--the decision leave a life of crime--is dramatic, but Rakim uses a very low key approach to the subject. The lyrical simplicity is especially interesting because Rakim was a 5 Percenter, and many of his lyrics are full of esoteric symbolism. On a later song, he would brag that "he could take a phrase that's rarely heard/flip it, now its a daily word", but he doesn't attempt that here.

After the spoken intro, Rakim begins his story: he is thinking of a master plan, because he is broke and hungry. He leaves his house trying to find some money, and thinks back to his days as a stick up kid, describing how he would steal money from people. He rejects this simply, saying "he has learned to earn, because he is righteous", and contemplates getting a normal job to pay his bills, and then continues on the way to the studio to record with Eric B. None of that description really accounts for how poetic Rakim makes this simple story. I find the line where he talks about his life as a criminal, and the simply refutes it with his desire to be righteous, to be a very direct statement of purpose that is not always found in hip-hop. KRS-One, for example, would probably deliver a 5 minute lecture on a Buddhist idea of constructed desires; and the Wu-Tang would probably sample gunshots and crying and tale a surreal, emotional tale. Rakim describes his criminal life in a few lines, and then refutes it in one.

I have probably already spent too much time describing this: the song should be listened to, and it doesn't make sense to have a writeup that takes longer to read than the song takes to listen to. But listen to this song as a cornerstone of understanding how hip-hop is, and how hip-hop should be.

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