Friday, September 2, 2016

De La Soul - And The Anonymous Nobody Review

Who can save Hip-Hop? According to De La Soul, legendary Native Tongues trio, nobody. However, it just so happens that De La, composed of Posdnous, Trugoy, and Maseo, are the nobodies here to save us. Never one for hulking boasts, this team of under-appreciated artists who churned out a slew of classics in the early 90's assume the role lampooned upon them, as the days in which they were notarized are long gone, forcing them to become nobodies. Not by minor influence mind you, as evidenced by their soaring counterparts A Tribe Called Quest, but more so the limitations and conflictions put upon them by record labels. After numerous licensing disputes, their image and sound have slowly disappeared from consciousness, as in our digital age, from iTunes to Spotify to their very own website, De La Soul in digital form is nowhere to be found. To millennials, they are nobodies. And The Anonymous Nobody, their first album in 12 years, sees them taking on that role through an entirely crowd-funded venture. The concept is interesting, some of the pieces are too, but the worth of this LP relies solely on one question. Does Hip-Hop need saving?

'Genesis,' the intro featuring a spoken word prelude from Jill Scott, begins this idea, witnessing De La Soul's first love fall to its lowest place. Purveyors of creativity, especially in the scope of a genre severely lacking it at the time of their arrival, De La Soul should admire how far Hip-Hop has traveled since they left us. We're no longer stuck between two opposing sides as we were in the 90's, and with a slew of sub-genres at our disposal today, it's easy to say Hip-Hop as a source of artistic expression is thriving. So while I appreciate the concept of Nobody, and the fact it has one at all, De La's transformation into the stubborn old man resistant to change is a bit unfortunate. Whether they own up to it or not, the success of De La's latest affair relies on those gosh darn inconsiderate youths displaying their rebellion on the cover. Hip-Hop backpackers, like Royce Da 5'9" or Hopsin, have been condemning fans like this for years, causing their notoriety to diminish on a mass scale. What makes Nobody a peculiar case, and one ever so difficult to gauge, is that these reactions are composed by artists still pushing their creativity to the limits, rather than ones receding into redundancy.

And if there's one thing And The Anonymous Nobody has in spades, it's creativity. Jumping from one crossover idea to the next, Nobody plays like a Gorillaz album, not a surprise given their recent, and robust, contributions to Damon Albarn's cartoon project. It's this imagination though that causes a severe double-edged sword to emerge. On one end, De La's work here is valued and enjoyable, taking from their many influential sources along the way. On the other end, almost every idea is dry and dull, lacking the refined edge of musical appreciation someone like Albarn sports greatly. With 16 songs defying genre labeling however, the ambition constantly on display is something to admire, even if the execution isn't always up to snuff. De La Soul gets points for doing what, excuse the pun, nobody has done in 2016. The problem lies with the fact that on Nobody, tracks are treated like typecast cliches, darting from Rock to Pop to Rap to Funk without a serious commitment to understanding what makes each one tick. 

Let's run through the examples. There's 'Lord Intended,' which features the dying guitar riffs of Rock's last moments alive in the early 2000's, and some pitifully edgy lyrics to boast ("fuck everyone, for everything"), all thanks to Justin Hawkins. 'Snoopies,' which uses David Byrne of the Talking Heads to dance with his lack of grace over strange New Wave material. 'Greyhounds,' which takes Usher back to his most primitive, and gutless, R&B days. Those three are stuffed together like an ill-fitting Oreo midway through the album. But that's not all. 'Nosed Up' elicits a potent odor of Sir Nose D Voidoffunk from George Clinton's Parliament days, 'CBGBS' takes on Westerns, 'Royalty Capes' does Medieval. Snoop Dogg turns 'Pain' into G-Funk, Roc Marciano gives Boom Bap to 'Property Of Spitkicker.Com,' and Pete Rock fosters a chill attitude on 'Memory Of... (US).' Suffice to say, Nobody is a complete and utter mess. And yet, for all its obvious and expected mockery, many of these tracks somehow work. Answering why is why it's taken me a week to properly review this album, and the solution is still not clear in my gaze. But there is one unifying code amalgamating all these alienating factors; De La Soul. They're the resolution to the chaotic formula.

They're not as vital or gripping, charismatic or inventive, but Posdnous and Trugoy are still plugging away as emcees of the game, despite losing some steam. Age is bound to do that, one can be glad they're not in the same spot they were 20 years ago like some artists who fail to evolve their philosophy. Thanks to these guys, and a daunting level of musicianship conjured up through sessional work that provided the bulk of the production, Nobody grabs listeners with intrigue despite there not being much depth to gleam at. De La's work with the Gorillaz has really influenced their outlook, investing more heavily in rhythms, structures and varying styles of music than manifesting unilateral flows, chipper dialogues, and copious samples. But still, in 2016, hearing the two emcees swap verses back and forth is refreshing, speaking on a range of topics that all seem to coincide with the point of Nobody. There's talk of their whereabouts ('Royalty Capes,' 'Spitkicker.Com'), their return ('Here In After,' 'Exodus'), and their place in Hip-Hop history ('Memory Of...,' 'Drawn'), along with detours that follow unsure loners on their quest to finding purpose ('Greyhounds,' 'Trainwreck').

It's hard to shake the unimaginable corniness that festers in many of these tracks. Take the final two, 'Here In After' and 'Exodus,' where they reflect in a near sing-a-long, jutting behind simple Hard Rock measures before abruptly shifting to Art Pop, all guided by Damon Albarn's vision. Despite the potential for eye-rolls, 'Here In After' is likely the best song here, composed brilliantly, with daunting structures that seek out a keen perfectionist slate. That same clumsiness allows for much of Nobody to gain traction. Once you begin to understand, Nobody, as reflected upon in We're Still Here (Now), a making-of documentary, sees the group falling back into the age where they weren't concerned about potential backlash. Being entirely driven by Kickstarter's funding, nothing would interfere with the artistic direction De La decided to take. It just so happens ambition collided with the unknown, and what's splattered all over Nobody is a group decade's beyond their prime trying out new things because they can. In a way, the appeal of the album, faults included, is how endearing and honest it all is. Always humble, sometimes self-depreciating emcees, De La Soul toys with their own inabilities, forever trying to learn more.

That's why And The Anonymous Nobody is so conflicting. You want to like De La Soul. Hell, they like each other, as Trugoy states on the spoken word outro ("bound by friendship," how not Hip-Hop of them). But there's times when the music is truly dated, plain, and unclear that it's so incredibly easy to hate. Nothing on their previous albums gave them permission to work with such diverse artists as David Byrne, 2 Chainz, and Little Dragon. Hell, 2004's The Grind Date was practically dripping in Hip-Hop, with featured legends running amok. And now they want to make the ultimate crossover record whilst taking every distinct approach they can? It's laughable. And yet, you look elsewhere in music to find those making similar reaches, and besides the Gorillaz, who've practically mastered the artform of distilled sonic understanding, who do you find? That's right, nobody. Many of these risks fail to pay off, but the fact they're risking with the stature of their name in tow proves that De La Soul's unique return is one that should be respected, even if the music doesn't condone such a response.

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