Finding a New Voice in Middle-Age
For De La Soul, an ensemble comprised of three of the forefathers of jazz-rap, it’s official: “[the] froze is up.” Set to be released on August 26th, the trio’s upcoming effort, and the Anonymous Nobody…, will be their first LP since 2004’s The Grind Date. As it turns out, the past twelve years of fermentation have led to a remarkably ambitious, and largely successful, result.
Of course, the wait time is not the only factor that makes this album noteworthy. The record was financed solely through the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, and was facilitated and produced without the supervision of a record label. The results of this decision are immediately noticed. The group, made up of emcees Dave, Maseo and Posdnous, takes liberties that the constraints of a label would likely prevent. Lush orchestrations bookend the record. Spoken word is peppered throughout – including segments from poet Gina Loring as well as a captivating, introductory monologue from the incomparable Jill Scott. Most notably, listeners hear the influence of a bevy of contrasting genres that run the gamut from trap music (“Whoodeeni”) to indie rock (“Here In After”).
Indeed, for an ensemble particularly noted for their groundbreaking use of sampling (see Prince Paul’s work on the classic 3 Feet High and Rising), De La Soul’s production in and the Anonymous Nobody… gives way to a host of surprises. The album, executive-produced by jazz trumpeter and composer Jordan Katz, heavily draws from “art music”– i.e. arrangements and instrumentations that are often relegated to the orchestra hall or jazz venue.
In fact, one of the album’s novelties is the way in which its musical foundation was set. De La Soul hosted and documented a series of jazz jam sessions, recorded particularly for this album, giving way to a library of previously unheard material. From this, the group could draw freely, not only avoiding the copyright issues that frequent many sample-laden albums, but also giving themselves access to an entirely authentic branding of the style that solidified their place in the firmament of hip-hop. Many of Dave, Maseo and Posdnous’ strongest cuts are those that heavily draw from this jazz-influenced material.
Following Scott’s exceptionally powerful words on “Genesis,” the band brings the listener to “Royalty Capes,” an introductory track that reminds us why the cadence and lilting rhymes of these old-school rappers still hold as much weight as they did in the ‘90s. Supported by a deeply rooted rhythm section and undercurrents of tenor saxophone, the song is punctuated with regal, low-brass interludes, while the trio proclaims their kingly roles in the legacy of rap. We hear similar, jazz-induced themes in tracks like “Trainwreck” and “Pain.” In the latter, the musicality is of such a high caliber (shout-out to the unnamed gospel choir) that it almost eclipses the performance of the emcees; though Snoop Dogg comes through with a cooler-than-ever guest turn that harkens back to the days of Doggystyle.
Truly, these musical progenitors don’t hesitate to remind the younger generation where this music came from (“Androids read raps off iPhones/I choke the blood out of felt tips” Dave utters on “Royalty Capes”). De La Soul’s capability as wordsmiths speaks loudly, and their rhythmic play wonderfully marries the linear, non-syncopated sound of the late-‘80s with the many recent developments of rap.
Their age does show on some cuts, though, and they occasionally come off as domesticated, aging men as they reflect on married life (e.g. “Memory Of…”). However, the trio’s storytelling skills remain as intact as ever. “Greyhounds” is reminiscent of Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytelling” or Ghostface’s “Josephine,” speaking to the way that these three men have seen others’ lives play out around them. The song also features what is easily the best hook of the album: a powerful guest spot by Usher, doing what he does best.
As a matter of fact, for an album flush with guest appearances, and the Anonymous Nobody… holds both its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses in the many compatriots it enlists. These featured artists are truly what makes it a unique and diverse record. In a time when hip-hop, in a mainstream sense, finds itself relatively unified in afrocentrism and black pride, De La Soul interestingly enlists the help of a slough of artists who bring a definite “whiteness” to the record. “Snoopies,” a track that shifts starkly from ‘80s alt-rock choruses to musically unrelated hip-hop verses, showcases David Byrne at his most Byrne-esque, almost performing as a caricature of himself. In the end, it feels like a ride in the car with a child who keeps pressing random buttons on the radio.
At times, one even wonders where De La Soul went. Justin Hawkins takes charge for the entirety of the second half of “Lord Intended” in a Queen meets Queens of the Stone Age stadium-rock anthem that feels out of place. Naturally, a turn from long-time collaborator Damon Albarn is expected, but what is delivered is an indie-rock anthem that feels more like it belongs in a scene from 500 Days of Summer or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist than in the midst of a De La Soul record. The listener barely hears any hip-hop at all on the fantastic “Drawn,” showcasing the talents of the Swedish group Little Dragon. With the power of this particular recording, though, no one ought to mind the Swedes taking the wheel.
While their ambition is both their triumph and their Achilles’ heel, it is impossible not to note that and the Anonymous Nobody… attempts to capture a sound that is simultaneously bygone and fresh. And though a few of the songs fall flat, this is a record for the fans – made possible by the fans – that deserves to be remembered.