Rakim's Web of Words : CHECK LIST**** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty

*** 1/2ERIC B. & RAKIM. "Follow the Leader." Uni. They ain't no joke. Where L.L. Cool J's hard rhythms are reminiscent of the steel-edged braggadocio of James Brown and Run-D.M.C.'s stolid rhythms recall gospel's foursquare beat, Eric B. & Rakim reflect rap music's solid grounding in cool soul, the moody, sophisticated R&B; of the early '70s--Donny Hathaway, Isaac Hayes and the JB's.

Rapper Rakim weaves a laid-back web of words, his whiskey-smooth tenor less noisy but more intense than the machine-gun mutterings you hear booming from beat boxes, his keen rhymes all the more devastating for being near-whispered where lesser rappers would shout. Deejay Eric B. is a master of chill, understated beats.

The new album might feel less revolutionary than last year's "Paid in Full," but it is far more consistent. The title cut runs gray and sinister, all swirling strings and staccato sampled horns, ponderous bass lines and Rakim's elegant, sneering bravado.

"Follow the Leader" isn't the hip-hop record that's going to convince U2 fans that rap is OK--the far more political Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions albums are more likely to do that--but you'll hear it pounding out of every beat box this summer.

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