De La Soul Is Back (Basically)

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

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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.

If it seems like I'm talking a lot about these two albums, it's because they established the dialectic that's defined De La Soul in the years since. They've been at times rap's most whimsical fantasists; at others its most wizened cynics. Their catalogue boasts bottomless repositories of breezy joy: "Breakadawn" from Buhloone Mindstate; "Oooh," the insanely fun Redman collaboration from AOI: Mosaic Thump; or "Eye Know," the finest track on 3 Feet High and one of the great love songs of all time (note to any crush-sick teenagers: Put this song on a mixtape, immediately). And yet at the same time no one in hip-hop mined melancholy (as distinct from tragedy or melodrama) so adeptly. Take "Trying People," the last track off the underrated AOI: Bionix, or "Fallin'," the gorgeously downbeat collaboration with Teenage Fanclub that might be the saddest rap song I've ever heard, for reasons I can't even really explain.

Native Tongues was a quintessentially '90s phenomenon, but as the millennium turned, a funny thing happened: De La Soul kept making great music. Though they haven't released an "official" album of new material since 2004's excellent The Grind Date, they've remained active through compilations, mixtapes, and high-profile guest spots. First Serve still isn't an "official" De La Soul album (though De La insist one of those is on its way), but it's proof that the Long Island kids who took rap by storm in '89, then gracefully transitioned into one of the genre's most cultishly beloved mainstays, haven't lost a step.

In fact, if there's a De La Soul album First Serve most resembles it's probably 3 Feet High and Rising, whose looming legacy they've never fully outrun, hard as they've sometimes tried. First Serve's fantasies of youth give it a similar disarming innocence: "Must B The Music," "Tennis" and "Move 'Em In, Move 'Em Out" are party tracks in the tradition of "Buddy" and "Me Myself and I," and the album's array of characters and interludes bear the welcome DNA of Prince Paul.

From a production standpoint, 2 & 4 are mostly up to the task: "Pop Life" boasts a shimmering R&B groove, and "Pushin' Aside, Pushin' Along"—the album's strongest track—is a ridiculously resourceful facsimile of J Dilla-meets-Kanye West. The disco influence can sometimes be overbearing and reverential to the point of glossiness, and in its lesser moments First Serve sounds a little too much like a Jamiroquai record. But of course Jamiroquai records never had Pos and Dave rapping on them, which goes a long way.

Even if First Serve isn't really a De La Soul record, it's the next best thing, and there's something powerful in the echoes of 3 Feet High that still linger, a record we've known so well for so long that it's sometimes easy to forget it's there. And there's something powerful in the fact that what's not really a De La Soul album can still make us remember how lucky we are to have De La Soul in this world, and how exciting it is to see what they'll do next. Those might be the only two things that haven't changed a bit since 1989, and there's still no reason to expect that they will.

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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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