July 18, 2009

Reader Review: De La Soul - Stakes Is High (July 2, 1996)

(Here's an album that I haven't yet gotten to because I'm trying to go in the order of the group's releases. Jos-B (who has a blog called Comin' Through) elected to skip Buhloone Mindstate and jump right to De La Soul's fourth album, Stakes Is High. Whenever I finally get to it, I'll try to do it justice, but for now, here's one reader's take.)

I’ll keep this short.

Stakes Is High is De La Soul’s fourth album, and their first without assistance from member by proxy/daddy dearest Prince Paul, which greatly altered the music laid behind Kelvin Mercer and David Jude Jolicoeur’s potent words. However, compared to De La Soul’s happy-go-lucky, almost-but-not-quite naive approach to hip-hop upon their debut, by the time Stakes Is High was released, De La Soul had become more of the pensive, cautious voice of hip-hop they are today, concerned with its future and disapproving of many of the genre's bad habits. Stakes Is High was released the same day as It Was Written (the second album from Nas) as well as in close proximity to 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and OutKast’s ATLiens. There’s no argument that Stakes Is High pales in comparison to those albums when it comes to widespread influence in hip-hop. But can 10,000 adamant bloggers be wrong when they proclaim this album as a classic? Let’s find out.

You’d think this were an intro for an album by KRS-One’s self-righteous ass, at least for the first 40 seconds, as it consists of a patchwork of heads reminiscing fondly about the first time they ever heard Criminal Minded (from Boogie Down Productions, for those of you who are unaware). Thankfully, I don’t have to review a song consisting of people reviewing another album filled with other songs, because De La rushes in with some rather dope verses over tight drums and a “Long Red”-esque shouting sample. Stand-out line: “De La Soul is hear to stay like racism.” Sidebar: WAY too long of a blurb for the f’n intro. Moving on.

Ricky D samples never go out of style, much like his eyepatch and dookie chains. Posdnuos and Trugoy contemplate what’s wrong with emcees, as well as hip-hop (pay attention class: this is foreshadowing to a recurring theme later in the album). De La manages to be preachy without being that annoying, and by not letting a message make the actual music fall by the wayside. So far, 1 for 1.

I’ll be honest, I usually skipped this C-to the-O-double-M-O-N featured track; but truth be told, it’s also pretty damn good. The old-school, name-spellin’ hook is enjoyable, as is hearing Lonnie Lynn declare his supremacy, not in emceeing, but in NBA Live (I was always partial to the 2K games myself). I’ve heard almost every single line Plug Wonder Why spits in his verse sampled later by other artists, so props to him. Oh, and WTF does Common mean at the end when he says his flow is “so fluid, it ain’t even a flow no more” ? Umm…what? (I've always been more intrigued as to why Common felt the need to diss HIV-positive Greg Louganis and his “sick ass” (a phrase that was edited out by the label): seriously, what was the point? That just comes off as kind of mean.) There are also two mini-songs tacked onto the end of this track, the first consisting of shoutouts to a gaggle of Native Tongues card-carrying members over a beat doper than the main song, and the second being Mr. Mercer dropping an absolutely FIERCE couple of bars.

This song’s good, but I don’t have much to say about it. Perhaps it’s because I’m not from Long Island: do they actually spell ‘once’ with a W over there?

I remember Max praising the chorus (true story) of “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” off of De La Soul Is Dead, although that chorus essentially consists of an excited, jazzy De La Soul answering machine message. That said, here’s another example of a simple, but great hook; Dove shouts out the ladies, Pos shouts out the fellas, then they repeat the title of the song, which is a nonsensical sound effect. Excelsior!

Rick the Ruler sample #2; Kelvin sounds like he’s yelling quietly here, which is odd. The beat is too smoothed-out and jazzy for me, especially for the subject matter, which includes, among other things, the experience of being robbed by a crackhead.

Again, the beat almost acts as a natural Quaalude (still a’ight though), contrasting with Plug One crooning over his love “getting fucked in all the wrong places”, which is a pretty gross metaphor.

With the help of the Jazzyfatnastees, De La spoof really shitty R&B/rap…successfully, I might add, since this song is OBNOXIOUS.

More “afternoon nap” music. Oh, how’s the song? At one point (taken drastically out of context), it mentions rap is just “n----s talking”. Just listen to the last few seconds before you dust off your torch and pitchfork.

Don’t tell me what to do, De La.

Excluding “Baby Baby Squared, Ooh Baby”, this song contrasts (at least musically) the most from the rest of the album so far, although it does host another Slick Rick sample (I think), and echoes De La’s lovers quarrel with hip-hop. I always loved this horn-laden instrumental, it’s the perfect backdrop to a lazy summer day spent sitting on a sizzling porch eating ice pops, if you’ll forgive the sappy imagery. Also, 2 for 2 for De La with being preachy but enjoyable.

Pleasant, but bo-o-o-o-ring.

A refreshing change of pace, beatwise. Mos Def flashes his Native Tongues Junior Detective card here; eight more features and he gets that free Icee. How’s the song? You’d love to know, wouldn’t you… (For the record, I like this track a lot.)

I thought I was listening to “Betta Listen” again, and we ALL know how I feel about that song, am I right, ladies and gentlemen, or should I say, Max’s two fans? *cue applause*

This song sounds like when you keep cranking the volume back and forth from loud to silent really fast so all your friends will think you’re hilarious in the car on the way to Burger King. That’s all that needs to be said.

SO GOOD. Plugs One through Three pull the trifecta on preachy-not-whiny songs. Pos definitely justifies his claim within his verse that “everything [he] says should be a hip-hop quotable”, and you couldn’t ask for a better beat from James ‘Jay “J Dilla” Dee’ Yancey. Lovin’ it.

I honestly didn’t even remember this song existed; I assume upon previous album listens, I would just listen to the previous track multiple times, then call it a day. However, this song is also really good. A fitting way to end the album, dropping all the “hip-hop’s got problems” stuff for some uplifting, feel good music.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I’ll put it this way. If you listen to hip-hop with headphones on or alone more than you do with your homeys in the car, then you’ll probably like Stakes Is High. If you don’t fall under the last category of people, but you still like this album, then your friends are either also hip-hop heads, or you just don’t have exciting car rides. Take that how you will.

BUY OR BURN?: Buy it, as the great songs are excellent, and the rest are listenable. Grab a copy, then go see De La live. Seriously.

BEST TRACKS: “Supa Emcees”, “Dinninnit”, “Itsoweezee (Hot)”, “Stakes Is High”

- Jos-B

(Be sure to leave questions, comments, and concerns below. And hit me up at the address on the side if you want to contribute your own Reader Review.)


  1. This is probabaly my favorite De La Soul Album. From That proceeding statement, it will be fun to see how the comments commence on this album. John and Q of course agrees with the review and John has to ask Q to ask Max when will you review this album (or the Main Source's album, or....(Just wanted to be an A**hole for the day, since I get a free slurpee at the store across the street from the 7-Eleven).

  2. pagan-holidayAugust 17, 2010

    Itsoweezee doesn't have a Slick Rick sample.

  3. Tile GroutMarch 31, 2011

    I didn't check this review until the "Max version" appeared. Nice job, Jos-B. Entertaining and informative.

  4. Remember buying a copy of The Source in Johannesburg back in '96 and true enough, that verse on Stakes Is High was a Hip-Hop Quotable