Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Past Greatness: April '18

Welcome to the 17th installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album provides Hip-Hop with one of the first, most creative, and most ambitious concept albums. A place where cartoony actions fiddle with the grim underbelly

De La Soul | De La Soul Is Dead
1991 | Jazz Rap | Listen

Flowers, peace, a soothing sound, and colors that compose the rainbow. It's hard not to see De La Soul's debut as Hip-Hop's alternative to the hippie era. 3 Feet High & Rising pushed daises, condemned violence in the inner cities, and placed love and empowerment on a mantle above braggadocio and death. So what then caused De La Soul to resent their genre-defining creation, yanking the roots from the soil that bore their compassion, modesty, and purity? Respect. It was something the trio of Posdnous, Dave, and Maseo (and honorary fourth member Prince Paul) offered in droves when they emerged onto the scene, only to receive none in return. How to demand recognition? Slice one's lifeblood away, wilting the pedals to signal rebirth. How to please those pacifist's who bought into the movement? Do it through the greatest piece of satire Hip-Hop has ever seen.

When it comes to Conscious Hip-Hop, listeners have grown accustomed to deftly serious lyricists penning crusades embodying the spirit of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Terse sarcasm only becomes a viable tactic when hypocrisy needs a mirror. Suffice to say, there's nothing brief about De La Soul's 27-track, skit-ridden masterpiece. The genius of their brainchild was three-fold: 1. To invite newcomers in with the promise of dark and combative Rap, 2. To disorient them with a swath of artistry; both highbrow and lowbrow, and 3. To utilize such expectations in ways that could proliferate their ingenuity. The level of unabashed ambition still unmatched in Hip-Hop, with Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves being the closest competition. How exactly does De La Soul accomplish such a feat? By crudely circumventing tradition, doubling down on skits that interject percipient commentary, and unfolding tales both absurd and tragic. 

Perhaps the most efficient and impressive way to illustrate De La Soul Is Dead's copious amounts of abstruse gusto would be in the form of a laundry list. There's moody piano ballads about the consequences of gun violence ('Johnny's Dead A.K.A. Vincent Mason') sandwiched directly against skits involving characters named Hamster Penis and Anal Wart. There's genre benders like 'Who Do U Worship' and 'Kicked Out The House' that temporarily ditch De La Soul's Jazz Rap in favor of Noise and House respectively. There's social commentary that uses affected childhoods as the basis for change ('My Brother's A Basehead,' 'Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa'). There's criticisms of Hip-Hop culture, both directly in Rap form ('Afro Connections At A Hi 5') and indirectly through various WRMS skits. There's love ('Talkin Bout Hey Love'), there's hate ('Keepin The Faith'). There's kindness ('A Roller Skating Jam Named "Saturdays"'), there's bitterness ('Bitties In The BK Lounge'). And above all else, there's plenty of joyously unbothered 90's era rhyming that strings words together with the smoothest of flows ('Pass The Plugs,' 'Oodles Of O's'). Even at a healthy 73 minutes, De La Soul Is Dead feels like so much more. It's a convoluted trip down the Rap rabbit hole, both admiring and confronting everything the genre stood for at the time.

There are a few notable examples where the trio shine beyond all doubt. Not only for its mastery of back-and-forth rhyme styling, but also it's undeniable creativity, 'Bitties In The BK Lounge' is a priceless standout. Unfolding a twist-filled story of a lousy Burger King employee who daydreams of a choice encounter with Tracy Chapman, only to awake, kazoo's in tow, to a feisty, foul-lipped customer, 'Bitties' is an enjoyably dizzying tale. The contest between Posdnous and LeShaun contains some of the best juvenile battle rap bars you'll ever hear, including; "Speaking of fat, would you like a diet soda? Cause less fat on you would spare us all the odor." Elsewhere, the flow-savvy flipping of Posdnous and Q-Tip on 'A Roller Skating Jam' is only matched by Vinia Mojica's Soul-liberating chorus. Diligent spoken word about love to an ignorant and unfaithful Pos on 'Talkin Bout Hey Love' echoes inequality and commitment issues. And 'My Brother's A Basehead' finds Posdnous' simple, Slick Rick storytelling achieve quite the reaction due to his engagement and affliction.

Always the under-appreciated maestro stitching, spinning, and scratching Soul together behind the scenes, De La Soul Is Dead wouldn't be half as memorable if not for Prince Paul's unconventionally novel production. Much like 3 Feet High & Rising, the expert crate-digger utilized a myriad of samples from 60's and 70's psychedelia. Statistically speaking, the numbers are astounding. 'Pass The Plugs' and 'A Roller Skating Jam' have eight each. 'Keepin The Faith' and 'Let, Let Me In' have nine. 'Oodles Of O's' reaches double digits with ten. That's all to say, underneath De La Soul's zest lies a bonafide Plunderphonics expedition. Despite the breath of material, Prince Paul layers each element with care and accessibility. The funkiness of 'Pease Porridge,' for example, a byproduct of James Brown vocals, Brother Bones quackery, and the children novelty act Harrell & Sharron Lucky. The soft and unperturbed 'Pass The Plugs' credited to Hip-Hop's early days, including Grandmaster Flash, Eric B & Rakim, and even De La Soul themselves, as Prince Paul had no shame (for the betterment of his music) of sampling past projects. Despite the titling and decomposing flower set, De La Soul Is Dead, sonically, was far from a somber affair. Paul's jazzy Boom Bap - perfect for the summertime boombox-assisted picnic - on tracks like 'Fanatic Of The B Word' and 'Keepin' The Faith' only aimed to heighten the impact of De La Soul's choice diversions into the bleakness.

And that's when De La Soul Is Dead reaches the zenith. Previously, the group's sprightly production matched their topical prose. 'Eye Know,' 'D.A.I.S.Y. Age,' 'Me, Myself, And I' all found value in self-love, honesty, and unity. Here though, sexual abusing Santa Clauses get shot by their maltreated daughters, horny teenagers ostracize friends for their inability to fornicate, familial drug addicts deceive through religion and rehab, and children with bullet holes in their heads get buried under the same concrete that, come Saturday night, a rollerskating rendezvous occurs. The maliciousness may go deeper than that, depending on the coy phrasing prominent in songs like 'Oodles Of O's' and 'Fanatic Of The B Word.' This is where De La Soul's death comes from. Not their peace-wielding message that they aim to spread, but all those around them that dubiously aim to prevent it. This is the funhouse mirror held opposite society's ill-repute, all while three inner-city, good-for-nothing hippies preach positivity in an effort to stop it. Contrary to popular opinion, De La Soul Is Dead isn't a dark album by force, it's one bore out of necessity from the evils all around us.

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