It might blow up but it won’t go pop:
The Grind Date – The last time De La actually felt somewhat relevant. They tried to catch the same wave MF DOOM, 9th Wonder, and J Dilla were riding at the time and the De La sound certainly benefits from the idiosyncrasies of their production styles. But this one never quite comes together. Witness the single “Much More” – unusually awkward flows and an out of place R&B chorus do not make for a good first look for your new album. Neither did Dave’s black eye on their bus performance of this song on Chappelle’s Show. (What happened there? Another falling out with Black Sheep?) The high point is “Rock Co.Kane Flow,” which sounds so DOOM-y that it probably should have been on Mm…Food.
3 Feet High And Rising – Classic yes, but overrated and overproduced as well. This is Prince Paul’s show but it’s one of the few times his always busy production style actually gets in the way of the rappers. Pos and Trugoy the Dave are so melodic and inventive with their flows that the overly complex beats seem restrictive – they need a good groove, not musique concrete. The highs still sound truly special: the genius layering of the samples in “Eye Know,” the George Clinton country funk and plagiarism paranoia of “Potholes In My Lawn,” and the single “Me Myself & I,” with the funkiness courtesy once again of Mr. Clinton. But there’s so much clutter and filler on this album, with skits and DJ showcases and game shows and all this crap that sounds clever on the first listen and after that gets tiresome. Still gets points for being so ambitious and creative and sampling The (surprising litigious) Turtles (whoops!)
De La Soul Is Dead – Critics didn’t like this one after 3 Feet and that might have been the whole point. But it’s really not that different. There’s lots of messy, almost intrusive production ideas like the children’s audiobook format with the bell ring for a turn of the page and all sorts of obscure scratchy samples that don’t always coalesce into good songs. This stuff really is too smart for it’s own good – like the Lou Donaldson sample that Brand Nubian would flip for “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” is used here on the second half of a “comedy” track about the girls who hang out at Burger King. By the time we get there, we’ve been through so many jumbled samples and sounds that the groove sounds like manna from Marley Marl and we just want to hear the guys rap. We do get a funktastic Funkadelic sample on the dark story of “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” and one of Prince Paul’s more agile juggling acts of familiar loops on “Keepin’ The Faith.” Better than 3 Feet
Stakes Is High – Quite underrated upon release, this one feels more important now: guests like Common, Mos Def, and J Dilla all have early career guest spots. But this is really De La’s first solo album as they step out from the shadow of Prince Paul to take on the majority of the production themselves. They couldn’t get any more minimal than “Itzsoweeze” with its amateurish keyboard stabs but Dave the Dove’s hooky verses turned this into an unlikely minor hit: “The only Italians you know is icees.” But other production work is surprisingly intricate, with soul samples and sound effects weaving around tracks like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Long Island Degrees.” “Betta Listen” incorporates Junior Parker’s “Outside Man,” affecting a nice thematic synergy between the songs. The title track co-produced by Dilla might be De La’s definitive statement.
Buloone Mind State – This is the Sgt Pepper of hip hop. Stunning album from back to front, perfectly realized. Listen to the way “Pattie Dooke” ramps up into a full jazz jam with the clever use of samples – organs, drums, flutes, horns – and once it gets going, it builds into a groove that effortlessly outclasses awful jazz-rap like Digable Planets or Guru’s horrid Jazzmatazz series. (Yes, Guru does appear on this track but mercifully doesn’t rap. Sorry Guru. RIP.) This is a truly unique sound, merging the artistic ambitions of the first two albums with a more mature, cohesive style. Prince Paul has created here his funkiest bag of beats from which he wisely steps aside to allow the Plugs to flow at their most abstract and melodic. The problems and doubts flippantly joked about on De La Soul Is Dead are explored in full in here, with equal parts introspection and self-effacing humor. This is also a catchy bunch of songs, with tons of hooks and phrases built on clever codes and wordplay. It’s a lot like Paul’s Boutique, but less insular, more self aware. De La can’t just make any music they want to – they’ve got to answer to an audience that’s just being introduced to artists like Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, and Dre’s G-Funk. They tell the whole story on “En Focus” but it takes some work to parse it out. The humor is as bizarre as ever: Japanese rappers flowing over a spare beat and a Public Enemy sample; “Area” taking hip hop’s territorial preoccupations to a lyric full of area code shout outs; satirizing lyrical braggadocio in “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)”; the great Maceo Parker soloing over the melancholy beat on side one. This is really one of the best hip hop albums of all time, equally as accessible with its melodies as it is deep with coded lyrics and buried samples.
And this year’s release “Get Away” featured a familiar sample from “side two of side B” of a famous double CD: