Saturday, September 10, 2016

album review: 'and the anonymous nobody...' by de la soul

So a few months back I had the misfortune to read a piece at MTV from someone I hesitate to call a journalist about his first exposure to De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising. And if you want to imagine the worst sort of scattershot, self-involved millennial 'thinkpiece' for which Buzzfeed pays a premium, it would be that, as the author meanders from half-hearted engagement with the project to musings about yoga, bagels, and a whole load of dance music that shows the sort of professional disinterest that creeps right up to the line of insulting. And look, I get it if the old-school sample-heavy sound isn't for you - that can be a bit of an acquired taste - but the complete failure to actually dig into the music or content almost makes me suspicious that it was an attempt to troll and gain clicks rather than make an actual point.

But it also served as a stark reminder that I myself hadn't really given De La Soul their due, so in preparation for this review and an album funded on Kickstarter and their first full project in twelve years, I went back through their entire back catalog and wow I'm glad I did. Naturally clever and insightful without being incredibly showy about it, featuring some great grooves and killer sampling choices, I can definitely see why De La Soul is held up as legends in hip-hop, and I'd argue their material has certainly aged better than some of their contemporaries. Sure, there were a few goofy elements that can read as missteps, but De La Soul were comfortable their audience was smart enough to get the subtext behind the comical flourishes, like the album-spanning middle finger to Vanilla Ice that was De La Soul Is Dead, or how measured their retort to gangsta rap was on Stakes Is High, or just how goddamn fantastic Buhloone Mindstate was, probably standing as my favourite of their classic records. Now I will say that around the turn of the millennium De La Soul did hit some diminishing returns, mostly courtesy to overloaded guest stars lists and a seeming dilution of their tighter thematic focus, but even with that I did like the aborted Art Official Intelligence trilogy to the point I'd love to see it eventually concluded. And yet, I have to say I was a little worried about this project, mostly because not only had the overloaded guest star list returned, it was more varied and eclectic than ever, which can be tough to blend into a cohesive sound or a smart narrative. But look, I had faith in De La Soul, that they could pull something together that was interesting and insightful - did they pull it off?

Well... this is a hard record to review, and not just because of historical context. Because, let's be brutally honest: I don't think anyone is expecting De La Soul to deliver a project that is on the level of their best, just something of quality that reflects the unique melodic direction and insight for which the band is known. But on the other hand, I get the feeling a lot of critics took in this project with the expectation that it'd fit close to a previous De La Soul album and left confused and frustrated, not helped by the record admittedly being kind of a mess. That said, if this is what De La Soul sounds like in 2016, I'm mostly okay with that, because this is a great album. It's weird, it's eclectic, it goes off in completely ridiculous directions with easily the most bizarre list of guest stars I've seen all year - but when it sticks the landing, it produces some of the most gorgeous and powerful music I've heard in 2016. 

And yet I've already seen this record not get the praise it deserves because it doesn't fall into the same lane as classic De La Soul albums, and to me, that's a damn shame... but I'm also not surprised. If you go back through their discography De La Soul has always been a weird, eclectic group that played loosely with big ideas, and they aren't particularly concerned with being accessible outside of their production. This album even goes beyond that, as while you'll get the textured heavy bass and beats that always characterized their grooves, it then departs into a half-dozen other genres of which I enjoyed but might not always be the best fit for the group. Sure, the retro-disco vibe that showed up on 'Pain' easily worked in a g-funk way, helped by Snoop Dogg staying on point, and the contributions of Estelle and Pete Rock on 'Memory Of (US)' are a great fit against the smoky soul ballad. But then you get the robotic overlays on 'Property Of' that really didn't click for me, or the rap-rock that tries to go beyond Queen-esque camp with the vocals of Justin Hawkins of The Darkness and doesn't quite get there, and then there's the krautrock grooves with David Byrne on 'Snoopies'... look, I like both beats, but the transitions here are painfully choppy. And then there's collaborations that don't really make a lot of sense outside of the concept: sure, I get thematically why Little Dragon is on 'Drawn', but it's an awkward fit for De La Soul, especially when before that we get the sparse blurry synths and great subtleties of 'Greyhounds' with Usher sounding fantastic, or later on with Damon Albarn of Blur on 'Here In After' that sounds way better with the layered guitars and crescendos than I was expecting - yeah, it's not 'Feel Good Inc.', but what is?

And really, with so many odd digressions, you get the impression that De La Soul wasn't expecting the kickstarter that fueled this project to get so much money, and thus they had to find a way to spend it all, so why not pull up seemingly random connections for a record that instrumentally feels all over the place? Because I can see hip-hop purists listening to this and finding it scattershot, or lacking in instrumental cohesion - which is completely true, and I don't think there'd be as many doubts if more of the experiments worked. Now if I had gotten that huge of a budget, I'd probably save it for sampling clearances, because while there's a good James Brown sample this record has a lot more arranged instrumentation, and again, it can be a weird fit for our rappers to flow against, especially when some of these beats don't really have the same texture or grit as the past. And even though I like the wordplay - De La Soul might use some weird rhyme patterns but they're still on point as potent rappers - there are some songs you wish the production had as much groove as they did.

But really, if you're listening to a De La Soul project nowadays, you want to talk about content, and that enigmatic title. And at first, it might seem a tad straightforward from Jill Scott's gorgeous introduction: finding and loving at your lowest point, not when it's easy, and while there are women referenced on this record, you could easily draw the metaphor that the women are representative of hip-hop herself. And sure, not a new concept, but De La Soul seems prepared to explore it throughout the entire record, especially considering how much blood, sweat, and tears the trio has put into the genre that hasn't actually given back as much. Hell, that's why there's the song 'Pain' very early on - not bitterness at being left behind, but a lingering ache that they need to find a way to handle through song after song. And as such this isn't a record I would take literally at all - we're operating in high concept territory, from the increased mechanization of the bragging on 'Property Of' to the reminiscence of an old musical flame played out beautifully on 'Memory Of... (US)' - or to put it another way, this is a record that has a song called 'CBGBS' - not only is this record aware of music history, it's trying to write itself into it! Following with apocalyptic rock and krautrock songs that could very well ring as prophetic, then with 'Greyhounds' that seems to play out a more dramatic version of anyone trying to break it in music with more of a melancholic ending, it starts falling into place fairly quickly. It's definitely helped by De La Soul being old enough to realistically frame these situations - and to get 2 Chainz of all people on 'Whodeeni' where he speaks pretty plainly about faking it before making it on a solid if over-the-top verse - and they never really fall towards outright misery - they're the old man who can look for the full package instead of chasing any fresh girl who might drive them off a cliff, an easy representation of new trends that hungry MCs love to chase on songs like 'Nosed Up'.

And here's the thing: this is not new for De La Soul. They've been writing music about making music since De La Soul Is Dead, including full-fledged genre commentary on Stakes Is High. That fact, along with the real heartfelt earnestness that characterizes the understanding of their lane on the final few songs, that's what pushes this record away from the 'critic-bait' territory - because think about it, between the eclectic features and the music about music, this is Critic Bait 101. But De La Soul are also smart and committed to their message enough to frame themselves inside the picture: aware of the role they could take as elder spokesmen but more content with speaking as 'the anonymous nobody', voices simply conveying the fleeting yet driving messages of their passions. And they don't shy away from acknowledging that's far from easy - Posdnuos admits he lost the love of his life on 'Drawn' because of his art, and that it can be a long and lonely road - it comes from too real of a place to feel cynical. And yet by the ending track 'Exodus', they state that while some would look for them to be saviors of hip-hop, they're simply going to do things their own way and present another option - a different possibility for the audience or maybe even other MCs who might not remember their work from the past, denying identity to speak from the people as just more contributors to the sound.

Man, I could go on about this record for another hour, that's how fascinating it is. But let me wrap this up and say that if you're looking for a more conventional De La Soul record, I completely would understand your disappointment, considering how scattershot, overloaded with guest stars, and flat out weird and the anonymous nobody... is. But I would also say you're looking for convention in one of the more experimental and cerebral hip hop groups that really doesn't get enough credit making a comeback that was long-overdue. And for me, solid 8/10 and a high recommendation. I can't promise you'll like this, especially if you prefer more straightforward hip-hop sounds like what was given on De La Soul's early work, but for thematic cohesion and power, and the anonymous nobody... really is something special. Definitely check this out, folks - if you give it the time and effort, it's so worth it.

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