De La Soul Is Back (Basically)

First Serve features two of the rap group's three members—and lives up to the trio's legacy.

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Duck Down

The first thing you should know about the new De La Soul album is that it's not really a De La Soul album, and the second thing you should know about the new De La Soul album is that it's pretty damn great, which is just one way that it's an awfully lot like a De La Soul album. The project is called "First Serve" and so is the record. Or if you want to get technical, it's called De La Soul's Plug 1 & Plug 2 Present First Serve, which should give a sense of the giddy eccentricity floating around the whole thing—another way that it's an awfully lot like a De La Soul album.

First Serve (the group) is a fictional duo made up of fictional rappers Deen Witter (De La Soul's Dave, a.k.a. Plug 2) and Jacob "Pop Life" Barrow (De La Soul's Posdnuous, a.k.a. Plug 1, whose fictional alias even has an alias—God I've missed these guys). First Serve (the album) is a collaboration with French production team 2 & 4 that's been described by Dave as "a movie on wax," which is perhaps a bit generous, even if First Serve is a lot more fun than most things you'll see in a theater this time of year. It's a plot-driven album about precocious youngsters with aspirations to rap immortality who journey through the highs and lows of stardom to finally emerge wise and victorious. Again: an awfully lot like De La Soul.

Over the past 23 years De La Soul—Posdnuos, Dave, and DJ Maseo (who sits out First Serve)—have carved out one of the more extraordinary and extraordinarily consistent careers in hip-hop, defined by a predilection for making music that's just plain smarter than almost anyone else's. Their first album, 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising, is the stuff of legend, an unexpected commercial smash that became an era-defining classic and a coming-out party for the influential and beloved collective known as Native Tongues.

3 Feet High's sprawling, lighthearted eclecticism (not to mention its packaging) saddled De La Soul with the unwanted and undeserved label of "hippie rap." They revolted against this, and in 1991 released De La Soul Is Dead, a dark and acrid record that deliberately bit the hand that had so eagerly fed 3 Feet High and Rising. As it turned out that hand tasted pretty good—while the album failed to match 3 Feet High's commercial success, from an artistic standpoint De La Soul Is Dead well surpassed it, tackling subjects like drug addiction and sexual abuse while insistently probing at the angstier corners of success. It's one of the best rap albums ever made.

Native Tongues was a '90s phenomenon, but as the millennium turned, a funny thing happened: De La Soul kept making great music.

No conversation about De La Soul in this period can neglect their producer, Prince Paul, the impishly brilliant combination of George Martin and Samuel Beckett who pioneered the dramatic subgenre of the rap skit (a dubious achievement in the long run, but it really worked here). In an era of hip-hop marked by bombastic authenticity claims, 3 Feet High and De La Soul Is Dead's fictitious fancies and indelible characters brought their own realness. Funny, imaginative and weird: That was what these guys were really like, and you knew it because you knew people like them.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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