If there’s a silver lining to the disaster that was 2016, you have to admit it was a good year for hip-hop. In addition to new visionaries like Chance, Gambino, and .Paak, we also saw the triumphant return of two giants of the original conscious rap movement – A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Sure, we also got a pretty decent Kanye record, but it didn’t make my Top Ten. De La Soul’s self-produced, kickstarter-funded 8th album did. It’s a sprawling and eclectic mix of songs, exploring a wide range of genres with hip-hop in the back seat for the majority of the ride. At 68 minutes, it clocks in slightly too long, but definitely manages to get the point across. We are ‘nobody’ and inconsequential to the world at large, but we can still make a difference in people’s lives.
The album is long, but it is packed to the brim with guest stars and other musical treats. Early on the record, we get a stop-in from Snoop (Dogg/Lion?) for ‘Pain’, a serious lecture disguised as a lounge-y funk number. Other highlights include ‘Drawn’ featuring Little Dragon, which begins with soft, plucky jazz strings and soul voices, but finally succumbs to a piano-driven R&B groove before a single rapped verse. Musicality is at the forefront here, and the lyricism is sparse for maximum impact. It’s a challenging listen all at once, with wild mood swings varying from heavy metal guitars in the Rick Rubin homage ‘Lord Intended’ to the delicately arranged strings of ‘Drawn’. Things do slow down towards the end, and the Damon Albarn collaboration ‘Here in After’ manages to avoid re-hashing the dystopian landscape that began with “Feel Good, Inc.” on the 2nd Gorillaz album. What we get here is something much, much different. Breezy synths and lush instrumentation (including a xylophone and a flute) add color to a psychedelic ode to existentialism, with none of the dark cynicism of Demon Days-era Albarn.
It’s a grand effort from a group that refuses to quit or compromise their sound, despite obstacles like legal clearance of copyrighted samples, which forced the band to stop selling their back catalog completely. De La Soul continues to evolve musically, into one of the most diverse and interesting musical acts in contemporary hip hop. Their first full album in 12 years doesn’t disappoint, it was certainly worth the wait.