Release Date: Aug 26, 2016
Record label: A.O.I. Records
Genre(s): Rap, Alternative Rap
De La Soul :: and the Anonymous NobodyA.O.I. RecordsAuthor: Steve 'Flash' JuonA fair warning/disclaimer before you start reading this review. As a backer of the Kickstarter campaign that ultimately led to this album's creation and release, I'm objectively biased to want this album to be good. Some of you will be aware that didn't stop me from dissecting "Meow the Jewels," another album I backed that was ultimately released, but in that case the internet all had a collective laugh at backing a ridiculous campaign, and the actual quality of the end product was the punchline whether good or bad (it was a little of both).In this case the stakes are much much higher.
A spectrum of guest stars appear on De La Soul's latest LP, and the Anonymous Nobody…, each from a disparate genre — grimy underground rap courtesy of Roc Marciano, mainstream G-funk-inspired hip-hop from Snoop Dogg, New Wave via David Byrne, neo-soul from Jill Scott, alt-rock bestowed by Blur's Damon Albarn and much, much more. That's a testament to the veteran hip-hop trio's popularity and, above all, their influence. But impressive as that range of collaborations might be, some of the LP's very best tracks feature founding members Posdnous, Dave and Maseo all on their own.
It’s staggering to think that De La Soul’s first album 3 Feet High And Rising came out 27 years ago. Despite the huge success of that record, and its subsequent influence on a whole host of artists, the trio never really recaptured its commercial heights. Much of their loss of momentum following that record was due to the rise of Gangsta Rap, which was distinctly at odds with the positive message and artistry that De La Soul put forth with their music alongside contemporaries like A Tribe Called Quest.
Remaining faithful to both to their underground origins and their fans, De La Soul's and the Anonymous Nobody… came about via funding by a Kickstarter campaign that hit its goal in remarkable timing (under ten hours) - perhaps more a reassuring than phenomenal feat when one considers the group’s prestige. Longevity, buttressed by quality and consistency, are substantial requisites to legendary status in the hip hop realm. But the concept takes on a new meaning when one considers De La Soul, who have been making their own unique waves since the late Eighties, and more astonishingly, seemingly churn out a new creative transformation with each release, whether it is exploring their group’s metaphorical death in De La Soul is Dead, or the eclectic space odysseys of the Art Official Intelligence LPs.
When D.A.I.S.Y. Age survivors De La Soul announced that they were returning to the studio after a decade’s hiatus — and that, instead of pushing the project through a traditional record label, they were looking to fund the album via Kickstarter — fans were understandably excited about the implications for one of hip-hop’s most famously creative acts. And true to form, the Long Island rap legends decided to forego heavy sampling and studio synth shortcuts on the resulting LP, and the Anonymous Nobody…, instead putting the money towards session musicians and orchestral production.
'Freedom + Collaboration = Success.' That’s what De La Soul’s Kickstarter page advertised, and they bring it in spades on And The Anonymous Nobody. Where to start? The title is, possibly, a shout to all the fans who donated some $600,874 to fund the process... but possibly also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the record's eclectic mix of guest spots. You can tick off David Byrne, Justin Hawkins, Estelle, Pete Rock, 2 Chainz, Little Dragon, Damon Albarn, Snoop Dogg and, wait, Usher? Jill Scott opens the record with cinematic, Runescape-y spoken word action, and then each "nobody" brings their own deal; the David Byrne track is wonky, Talking Heads pop sliced with some classic De La verses.
Growing old ain’t easy in Hip Hop. Some artists try to conform to the trends of the day, while others stick to their tried-and-true sounds that gained them fame. Time off can make things even trickier. Such is the case for De La Soul; it’s been four years since Posdnous and Dave released Plug 1 and Plug 2 Present…First Serve and 12 years since they dropped The Grind Date, their last output as a trio.
The wait is finally over. For De La Soul fans, especially those that have been there since the trio’s seminal album, 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising, the news of De La Soul’s ninth studio album coming to fruition was like a dream come true. After raising over $600,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, they had more money to make an album than they’ve ever had before.
De La Soul have been positioned as everything from young hippie weirdos to aging, jaded scolds in the face of their more hardcore contemporaries. But the truth is that they’re just smart, grounded wiseasses whose eccentricities alternately hid or let slip their everyman status. If the clean-cut white yuppie who came in for U2 and came out with De La Soul was positioned semi-ironically at their start, their current position as elder statesmen of rap comes from their crossover eclecticism fine-tuned into a true-to-self versatility.
Almost 30 years after their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, transformed the possibilities of a rap record, and nearly 12 years since their last LP, De La Soul are still ambitious outliers. Financed by a Kickstarter campaign, constructed over breaks and beats mined from more than 200 hours of jamming by a live band, and stuffed with guest stars (Snoop Dogg, Damon Albarn, Jill Scott), And the Anonymous Nobody sometimes risks losing Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo in their own record. Tracks like the loopy "Snoopies" (with David Byrne) and old-school throwdown "Whoodeeni" (with 2 Chainz) are glorious bug-outs, but the urban cautionary tale "Greyhounds" (echoing Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," with Usher on the hook) is a reminder that De La are often more powerful when they're less goofy – and that their greatest strength has always been not caring what hip-hop is supposed to sound like.
Among the various hip-hop acts that became the Native Tongues in the early ‘90s, De La Soul are easily the longest lasting, and it’s easy to see why. While other groups at the time focused on social commentary and jazzy instrumentals, De La Soul never had one such singular focus. Years after A Tribe Called Quest called it quits in the late ‘90s, Posdnous, Dave, and Maseo spit bars on Gorillaz’s debut album, a blend of indie rock, hip-hop and electronica that could not be farther away from the Universal Zulu Nation of Afrika Bambaataa.
After releasing The Grind Date in 2004, the venerable hip hop pioneers De La Soul were quiet on the album front until 2016's And the Anonymous Nobody. They were pretty busy otherwise though, working with the Gorillaz, making mixtapes, touring, and attempting to release their back catalog for free, much to Warner Bros. dismay. Dave and Posdnuos even made an album together, 2012's De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 Presents...
De La are not only the last headline trio from rap’s golden age still thriving, they’re the only ones with three surviving members. Tribe, the Beasties and Run-DMC haven’t been as fortunate. This long-awaited reunion album was funded through Kickstarter, and every dollar throbs through the powerful, extravagant production. Musically, standards are high, particularly on the orchestral Memory of… (Us) or the gripping Royalty Capes, but a major label would’ve insisted on more focused structures to the many intriguing collaborations.
Two decades ago this year, De La Soul’s iconic fourth album ‘Stakes Is High’ solidified itself into hip-hop history at a time of turmoil. As the genre sat on the cusp of widespread commercial appeal De La called in-fighting, label meddling and fakeness in the pursuit of mainstream appeal into question, issuing a rallying cry for hip-hop as a community built on respect, realness and love. 20 years later and 12 years since their last release, the New York trio’s message is largely the same.
With the spirit of the Daisy Age alive and well in current rap darlings such as Anderson .Paak and Chance the Rapper, De La Soul cruise back into the zeitgeist with this partly crowdfunded – and partly brilliant – new record. The Kickstarter cash is evident, with A-list guests such as Snoop and Usher, an orchestra swirling in updrafts around Estelle on Memory of …, and a gospel choir joining the Darkness’s Justin Hawkins for chants of “Fuck everyone, fuck everything” on Lord Intended. As the latter suggests, your wackiness threshold may swiftly be reached, particularly on the interminable shaggy dog stories of Untold and Nosed Up.
It starts promisingly enough, with Jill Scott’s speech about caring about stuff that needs care. But it doesn’t continue on that exalted level. There are tunes here, but is this an album? Is it even De La Soul? Never just a hip-hop act, they were under fire as far back as the early 90s for daring to feature Japanese rappers, but they can do what they like because they’ve earned the right.
There’s no nice way to say this, but frankly the number of recording contracts thrown at shitty rappers with dark trap beats, trashy lyric vibes, and some dunce drawling vowels in front of it, has tested my fucking patience. It’s not even just the sound itself, which is already pretty depressing when it’s done badly (which it usually is, because it’s become very easy to make it), but also the addle and fervor with which all of it is thrown-in to the minute-by-minute dialogue for the attention economy, to extend conversations that, um, might not be worth starting in the first place. Like the stuff if you want, obviously, but don’t try to half-ass it to me that Gucci Mane or his many wannabes need an Academic Critical Dialogue.
De La Soul’s contributions to hip-hop over the past three decades are mighty, but the Long Island trio has often been challenged by its own creativity. In an era where music is becoming increasingly accessible, De La’s catalogue has been noticeably absent from iTunes, Spotify, and other free and subscription-based platforms due to issues with sample clearances. It’s a war Posdnuos, Dave, and Maseo have been waging for years: How do we make music on our own terms without interference from lawyers, labels, and other industry gatekeepers? It’s an unfortunate position for one of hip-hop’s most innovative acts to find itself in, but the group has made strides toward reclaiming control of its own destiny in recent years.
“True to our Hip-Hop roots, we make music without limits” say De La Soul in the statement released with the Kickstarter campaign, launched to fund their eighth studio album. But as a group whose career has been tied and tangled in the ever evolving laws of music copyright, they’ve never exactly been free. Their debut 3 Feet High and Rising ingeniously stitched an eclectic selection of over 60 different records (from Johnny Cash to Parliament) into its 67 minutes of ground-breaking tracks underneath their light hearted pop-culture and in-joke riddled raps - playing them over and off each-other in such a way they were heralded as sparking a new era of hip-hop.
De La Soul's 1989 debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, is inarguably one of the most influential albums in the history of hip-hop, but the genre has reinvented itself countless times since then. And The Anonymous Nobody… is their first album in 12 years, and it finds the Long Island trio wrestling with honouring their considerable legacy and reasserting their contemporary relevance. This results in some unexpectedly pleasant surprises, some less successful experiments and just enough nods to their classic sound to satisfy long-time fans.
It's been a rather emotional beginning of September for those who are wholly enraptured with Nick Cave's chilling Skeleton Tree. But if you've been looking for some music to decompress with, then the past month featured some rather great offerings. My top choice for the month goes to the singular ….