DE LA SOUL
DE LA SOUL:
Kelvin Mercer a.k.a. Posdnous-Plug One
Dave Jude Jolicoeur a.k.a. Dave-Trugoy The Dove-Plug Two
Vincent Lamont Mason Jr. a.k.a. Maseo-Pasemaster Mase-Plug Three
Performed with The Rhythm Roots All Stars
Released August 26, 2016
"At the end of the day, those 11,000 people...they saved our lives."
It is really only this point in time that I am fully realizing that the incredible amount of goodwill the iconic hip-hop trio De La Soul has amassed over their nearly 30 year career has been exquisitely earned and more than well deserved. Through their sheer creativity, innovativeness, audacity, fearlessness and unquestionably their steadfast nature regarding their longevity regardless of any career obstacles, they have remained nearly peerless.
For me, my allegiance to the group began, as I am certain as it did for most, with their landmark debut album "3 Feet High And Rising" (released February 14, 1989), an album introduced to me by a friend who was convinced that this would be the very release to shatter any skepticism that I held towards rap and hip-hop. He was 100% correct as I fell in love with the release upon first listen.
And what a first listen that album was. De La Soul's "3 Feet High And Rising" was undoubtedly a game changer. Working in full collaboration with genius producer Prince Paul, De La Soul delivered a full and immersive audio experience that created a labyrinthine musical universe filled with skits, in-jokes within in-jokes which peppered, informed and supported a sublime musical and lyrical outpouring that functioned as the sneakiest yet sharpest brick thrown through the hip-hop window as the high level and inventiveness of the sampling, plus the exceedingly wide variety of source material of which the group played off of, was staggering to say the least and showcased precisely not only what hip hop could be but what hip-hop already existed as in the minds of these fiercely idiosyncratic artists.
The two follow-up albums, the extraordinary "De La Soul Is Dead" (released May 14, 1991) and "Buhloone Mindstate" (released September 21, 1993) respectively, only deepened and increased the musical power and vision of De La Soul masterfully but afterwards and their decision to part ways with Prince Paul as musical co-conspirator, it seemed that De La Soul became hip-hop's version of Icarus, the band who flew so highly and so closely to the sun but fell back towards Earth.
Now do not get me wrong. That sentiment is not meant to suggest that Prince Paul was the primary architect to the greatness of those first three De La Soul albums but somehow, I kind of think of him like being the group's George Martin, the one who believed and knew precisely how to best represent them sonically, delivering their distinctive musical universe as gloriously as possible. And for whatever reasons, the material released after these three golden albums just paled considerably to my ears, despite the musical risk taking and undeniable ambition.
Essentially, with "Stakes Is High" (released July 2, 1996), "The Grind Date" (released October 5, 2004) and both, "Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump" (released August 8, 2000) and "AOI: Bionix" (released December 4, 2001), incidentally the first two installments of the aborted three part album series, De La Soul, who triumphantly paved their own way and became hip-hop front-runners seemed to fall behind their contemporaries and functioned as if they were playing catch up within a genre that was either advancing or stagnating (depending upon whom you would ask) around them. The time between album releases grew due to all manner of music industry and record label upheavals, which may have also played significant roles in the music they were writing and releasing as well. While all of those albums had their fine moments, they were also littered with moments that were more than regrettable, moments that felt to be almost desperate means to keep pace with the pack, wholly unnecessary when De La Soul only really needed to keep pace with themselves.
Yet, even through all of the valleys, I have remained faithful, hopeful and have been rooting for De La Soul's resurgence for a long time...an extremely long time. I have felt that the group's return to glory would be inevitable and also, I just knew that they still possessed the goods to bring that glory to vivid life. And now, that glory has now grandly revealed itself as "...and the Anonymous Nobody," De La Soul's ninth release, their first album in 11 years and without question, their finest work in over 20 years and finally, easily it is one of the very best albums that I have heard in 2016.
By now, for many of you the road to the arrival of "and the Anonymous Nobody" is more than well known but for the uninitiated, the backstory is as follows...
For a group as restlessly ambitious as De La Soul, their next idea for constituting their new album was certainly their most audacious to date. The idea was to eschew with all samples of pre-existing material as their sonic backdrops and to essentially sample themselves instead via the recording and composing of music with their touring band The Rhythm Roots All Stars. Additionally, and desiring a greater independence than ever before, De La Soul rolled the dice and turned to the crowd-funding source of Kickstarter to raise funds for this new project not ever fully knowing if whatever fan base they possessed in the past would still remain in existence in the present. To their surprise, De La Soul fully met and exceeded their projected goal of $110,000 within the first 24 hours!! (Yes, I contributed.)
Certainly, I cannot even begin to know what transpired for Posdnous, Dave and Maseo as they received this instant confirmation of their fan base's collective loyalty, but I would like to think that it was at this point where they took the good will of all of these anonymous nobodies and became more determined than ever to dig to their absolute deepest and unearth the finest music they could possibly create. Working with The Rhythm Roots All Stars, De La Soul jammed with the musicians and ended up recording over 200 hours of material, which they then pressed onto vinyl, thus creating their own custom made vinyl stacks which cold then be further manipulated--i.e., De La Soul had effectively sampled themselves!
Now, ti was time to create the album in full, being inspired by the music they created out of thin air rather than re-contextualizing pre-existing material. While the band had originally proclaimed a release date of April 2016, the deep waters of the business side of the music business had to be effectively navigated--from negotiating any legalities to collaborating with guest artists, artwork, distribution, Kickstarter rewards etc...therefore, the original release was pushed to the end of August--but as a tidbit, De La Soul did toss us the fun 4 track teaser entitled "for your Pain And Suffering" (released April 29, 2016) which featured an upcoming album track plus the terrific, playful non-album tracks "Beautiful Night," with its elegant horn section as well as "Schoolyard Studios," which is a tad reminiscent of Paul Simon's "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard."
Yet, after everything and when all is said and done, the intensely extra effort has paid off beautifully as De La Soul, has finally, FINALLY, crafted an album is fully cut from the same cloth as the group's first three albums while, and this is indeed crucial, it is a work that sounds absolutely nothing like any of those albums, or really even any other album in the De La Soul discography.
"and the Anonymous Nobody" is as lyrically dexterous as anything we have ever heard from the group in the past, but this time, the songs are armed with a full knowledge and reflectiveness that arrives poignantly after 30 years on the music scene, a distinctive quality that informs and provides a greater gravity throughout the entire album even when the songs themselves are more humorous, or absurd as demonstrated on the six minute Country-Western Ennio Morricone styled fantasia/ode to a lifetime on a worldwide tour entitled "Unfold."
But first...Yes, you did read that correctly in the above paragraph. Country-Western. The over 200 hours of music generated for the nearly 70 minute album was exceedingly well worth the extensive recording and jamming process for De La Soul. Secondly, the group has found innovative ways to incorporate a slew of guest appearances throughout the album making "and the Anonymous Nobody" feel as if De La Soul has taken a few pages from the playbooks as utilized by groups like Handsome Boy Modeling School (the duo of Dan The Automator and Prince Paul) as well as Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's Gorillaz, both groups with whom De La Soul has collaborated with (and frankly, both groups who have clearly been heavily influenced by De La Soul). But, be assured, De La Soul remain at the forefront, never creating a work that sounds as if they are guesting upon their own album. We are recipients of their vision from beginning to end and luxuriously so. Simply stated, the wide breadth of musical diversity on "and the Anonymous Nobody" is positively thrilling to listen to.
"and the Anonymous Nobody" opens in prayer with the track "Genesis" featuring an urgent invocation from Jill Scott fronting an orchestral backdrop that recalls Bill Lee's sweeping strings from Spike Lee's early "joints."
"When do you think it's time to love something the most, child?" asks Scott with passionate, Earth Motherly reverence. "When it's successful and done made everything easy for us, huh? Psh!/Un-uh, that ain't the time at all/It's when it's reached it's lowest point and yo don't believe in it anymore/And the world done kicked it and its tail that its lost itself!/Yes, that's when nobody cares/That's right/Nobody."
While delivered with rich elocution by Jill Scott, those opening words fully conveyed the artistic and even spiritual challenges faced by De La Soul, individually and collectively, effectively beginning "and the Anonymous Nobody" from a place of near defeat, a brilliant move as upwards is the only direction from here.
At this point, "and the Anonymous Nobody" is front loaded with a series of hip-hop and funk fueled jams including the horn blasted processional of "Royalty Capes," the dance floor groove of perseverance entitled "Pain" featuring a guest shot from none other than Snoop Dogg ("Pain will make you better," chants the chorus), and the minimalist shuffling drums space voyage of "Property Of Spitkicker.Com."
The stunning, sweeping "Memory Of...(US)" with its gorgeous string sections pumped up by succulent hip-swaying bass and drums documents beautifully layered sections from Posdnous and Dave, filled with metaphors detailing remembrances of either a lost romance or a renewal of a love of hip-hop.
"How could I forget?
A ballad was born upon a demo of a fly love song
Didn't take long before the archer with the wings heard it
Shot us in the heart with a contract, he knew we were a hit
The right amount of soul with a parallel amount of grit
But the archer couldn't see the target of departure
Gave in your pink slip and called it quits
It's understood you would
Label me a mate who wronged you
Cause I kept wanting to feature
With them other females on they songs too
Your words spoken in mono for monogamy
Telling me I had to go cause I chose
Stereo for stereotypical male biology
And now I'm left setting traps
For you to fall in for me again
Who hates you to tell me
'Slow up the pace, maybe erase, don't...'"
The warmth, sincerity, vulnerability and regret just feels like a warm bath to sink into for an extended session of self-healing and hopeful rejuvenation.
The album switches gears dramatically with the swift garage rock of "CBGB'S" before soaring into the incendiary, swaggering hard rock of the seven minute plus "Lord Intended" featuring Justin Hawkins of The Darkness crooning in his finest faux Freddie Mercury falsetto, "FUCK EVERYONE!!" before the band unloads a face melting guitar solo. The inimitable David Byrne arrives on the album's next curve ball "Snoopies," a terrific alt-rock/hip-hop hybrid that makes me wish for future collaborations from these two markedly different yet like minded idiosyncratic artists.
The mood turns pensive and somber during "Greyhounds," one of the album's strongest songs that feels like a conceptual link to Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" and Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City," and a gain showcases the depth of the group lyrical skills and concepts. Existing within the same stratosphere as more serious-minded classic De La Soul tracks like "My. Brother's A Basehead" and the grim child abuse turned violent retribution tale of "Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa," Dave a.k.a. Plug Too weaves a series of dark vignettes featuring a female ingenue arriving in the big city only to become trapped in the world of prostitution and another starring a wayward drug dealer, whose ultimate fates arrive before and after travels upon the song's titular vehicle. "So watch where you're goin'/And this food you're chosin'" warns the song. "By the time you arrive, you'll forever be changed."
Relationships, sex and the consequences of carnality arrive on the album's next three selections, the brief "Sexy Bitch," the deep bass driven erotic angst of "Trainwreck" and culminating with the album's most musically striking selection, the mournful tale of infidelity and the long shadow of regret of "Drawn" featuring the ethereal vocals of Little Dragon and an instrumental backdrop that sounds like orchestral chamber music.
Updated versions of old-school hip-hop and '70s era funk a la Parliament arrive on the 2Chainz assisted track "Whodeeni" and "Nosed Up," respectively. After the brief satirical infomercial of "You Go Dave" and the aforementioned Western travelogue dreamworld of "Unfold," the album arrives at its highly emotional and transcendent conclusion with the one-two punch of "Here In After," a anthemic alt-rock/atmospheric soul hybrid of impending mortality and passionate resolve featuring a reunion with Damon Albarn and the stirring benediction of "Exodus," on which, through a bed of orchestral strings, we end with the following words:
"We are the present, the past and still, the future. Bound by friendship, fueled and inspired by what's at stake. Saviors? Heroes? Nah. Just common contributors hopin' that what we created inspires you to selflessly challenge and contribute.
De La Soul's "and the Anonymous Nobody" is a 100% triumph whose dense, dynamic lyrics, guest appearances and defiantly wide reaching musical palate all contain thematics that play off of each other and double end upon themselves, ultimately weaving a tightly wound tapestry. The live instrumentation propels the lyrics and vice versa and outside samples are utilized at the bare minimum, often as accents to the music and not as the bedrock.
All three members are in tip-top voice and commands of their gifts as if the 30 years within the industry had not damaged them in any conceivable way. But to the contrary, we all know that this group has weathered more music industry storms than others and have had more than enough reasons to pack it in but intrepid they remained. Ad in fact, it feels as if we are now seeing De La Soul at a place where they are truly hungry again--perhaps eve hungrier than when they first began as while existing at what may have been their lowest point, they realized that they had nothing more to lose thus fueling their artistry, inspiration and determination to swing for the fences.
As for the "nobodies" in question? Well, in a music industry where De La Soul has always existed within their own musical universe and one that has seemingly passed the by after 30 years, it is possible that all three members may have felt of themselves as "nobodies," as "anonymous" figures that "nobody" cared about anymore. The "nobodies" also represent every single person who has ever believed in the group, who therefore contributed to the Kickstarter fund, every single soul that De La Soul has not ever known personally or has ever even met yet who collectively pushed for the group's continued good fortune and opportunity to create the very music that no one but De La Soul could create.
De La Soul's "and the Anonymous Nobody" is an outstanding work of synchronicity and solidarity. Like their classic material, they have created material that again showcases precisely what hip-hop and music itself can possibly be and what the three members of De La Soul already believe that it is!