The last time I wrote about De La Soul was back in August of 2009. Seriously. I realize that doesn't sound appropriate: I'm actually surprised at how long ago it was. I swear I was jotting down my notes on Buhloone Mindstate just yesterday. But the proof can be found right there on the sidebar with one click. I suppose I don't really have much of an excuse, but now is as good a time as any to revisit one of the founding members of the Native Tongues movement, so here we go.
De La Soul's fourth album, Stakes Is High, dropped in 1996, three years after their previous effort, the aforementioned Buhloone Mindstate, polarized their audience. Although the trio still consisted of Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Maseo, and they were still signed to Tommy Boy Records, there were some marked differences between this effort and their other releases. For one, Trugoy decided that he liked the rap name "Dave" better. And Stakes Is High features the group at their angriest: although De La Soul Is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate found De La fighting the stigma of being hip hop's resident hippies (thanks to the response to their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising), this project was a reactionary one, targeting the issues they were having with the rap music of the day, which ditched creativity and nuance in favor of materialism, sexism, and organized crime, making this a far cry from the happy-go-lucky songs from their freshman effort.
But the most noticeable difference between this product and De La Soul's past work was, of course, the absence of their longtime producer (and unofficial fourth member), Prince Paul. The breakup appeared to be amicable: in fact, Pos and Dave still turn up on Prince Paul's many side projects to this day. But it was time for the group to switch up its approach, and they felt the best way to accomplish that was to change its sound: Paul doesn't even manage to score one production credit on Stakes Is High. De La Soul was fucking serious about their craft this time around: save for a few tracks, they even handled all of the musical backing themselves.
Stakes Is High didn't sell very well (a major label album lashing out at commercialism isn't exactly going to do well commercially itself, you see), but it was very highly acclaimed by music critics, most of whom ranked it among their best work. There are even folks out there who believe it to be their best work. While I don't fall into the latter category, I can say this: Stakes Is High was the first De La Soul album I ever purchased, and even though my younger self was more prone to skipping tracks within the first two seconds than I am now, what I heard was still good enough to warrant me looking into their back catalog as soon as I could. (The association with Prince Paul, admittedly, played a strong supporting role in that.)
Longtime readers may recall that there was actually a Reader Review of Stakes Is High published way back in July of 2009. However, this write-up is not intended to signify that I'm now going to write up every single album that you two have reviewed. I just believe that I have something worth saying (and reading) about the project, and enough time has passed that I can write this post without fear of it being influenced by Jos-B's original review.
Also, only two people commented on his Stakes Is High write-up. The fuck? De La Soul are fucking legends! Hopefully this newer post will garner a bit more appreciation.
After a documentary-style intro, featuring faceless voices discussing where they were wand how they felt when they first listened to Criminal Minded from Boogie Down productions, a minimalist drum track kicks in for Pos and Dave to destroy. Already with this intro, you find that Prince Paul's influence has officially left the building, as this sounds nothing like De La's first three albums, and yet, it still rocks. Maybe these guys don't always need to have Paul hanging around. This intro is notorious for inciting a goofy beef between Treach (of Naughty By Nature and softcore porn fame) and Posdnuos, because of the latter's “Stick to your Naughty By Natures and your Kanes” line, which Treach misheard as a correlation between liking Naughty and being high on Charlie Sheen, as the line directly before that talks about weed. I understand they actually had a physical altercation because of it. Misinterpretation can be a bitch, right?
2. SUPA EMCEES
This track goes a long way toward eradicating the “hip hop hippies” label that De La have had affixed to their collective forehead ever since 3 Feet High and Rising dropped. Over a fucking dope beat, Dave and Pos each take a single verse to display their mic prowess, thereby helping to explain what they're still doing in the rap game after having already released three critically-acclaimed albums. Pos uses a single line to bring relevancy back to his crew: “While others are representing, I present my rep”. Which says everything you need to know about this song, really. Pretty fucking good.
3. THE BIZNESS (FEAT. COMMON)
“The Bizness” was actually my introduction to the Stakes Is High project: I heard it on the radio, and its stark, hypnotic minimalism put me in a chokehold, refusing to release me and allow oxygen into my lungs until I bought the goddamn album. The track still works today, too: De La Soul's collaboration with Common, a like-minded artist in the field of “conscious” rap when he isn't obsessed with getting his dick sucked, knocks with the best of them, and the Craig Mack sound bite at the beginning, taken from his “Get Down”, even fits in pretty nicely. There is no standout here: each rapper brings the best out of the others involved, so all three end up sounding great, although you'll probably remember Lonnie's verse more, thanks to his censored comment about Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis and his “sick ass” (Louganis is HIV-positive), which goes a bit off-color for Common, which might be why it was censored in the first place. De La even found a way to fit two interludes between “The Bizness” and the next track, so that was...okay, that was actually unnecessary, but one of those interludes is a verse, so it's not a complete waste of time.
4. WONCE AGAIN LONG ISLAND
When I bought Stakes Is High back in 1996, this was always the point where I started skipping ahead, but in listening to it today, it turns out that I was a fucking idiot when I was younger, as this Posdnuos solo shot is really good. Plug One goes for broke over three verses, sounding like the rarest of all creatures: the seasoned veteran who hasn't yet run out of ideas. The instrumental is pretty good, and it evolves as the track goes on (I think I might have heard a swatch of the same song that was used for the “Hip Hop Remix” of The Notorious B.I.G.'s “One More Chance”). While Dave is missed, this shit still rocked.
My younger self may have been correct about this song, though, as “Dinninit” sounds about as boring as I remember. My issue isn't so much with the lyrics, which are as playful as ever (Trugoy professes his love for various R&B singers (although two out of the three artists he names on here would have been traded out for others had this been recorded today – guess which two!) while Pos goes out of his way to explain how much he hates “busters...unless their name is Busta Rhymes”), but with Spearhead X's instrumental, which doesn't fit the sound established thus far on Stakes Is High, nor does it match the urgency that the album title suggests. Also, the song's very name is pretty fucking stupid. That is all.
“Brakes” fares a bit better than I originally gave it credit for. Utilizing a piano-dominated instrumental, Pos and Dave attempt to evoke the feeling of old school hip hop, most specifically referring to a certain Kurtis Blow song whose title is a homonym of “Brakes” with a “The” thrown in front. It sounds ridiculous and impossible to remind listeners of the feel-good party atmosphere of the golden age in our chosen genre while using a beat that sounds so cold and modern (and perfect to leave on the radio when you're doing chores around the house, another visual image De La evokes on here), but the trio manage to pull it off, turning “Brakes” into a nostalgic drive back into your old neighborhood, the one that you would absolutely positively never want to live in again, but is good to see every once in a while.
7. DOG EAT DOG
I didn't care for this song. I appreciate the concept: I get that De La Soul recorded Stakes Is High as a response to how they felt hip hop was being mistreated during the Puff Daddy jiggy era, and this song is just one of many direct attacks (Dave's verse is, anyway). But the hook is terrible. And since Dave runs through it four fucking times before the first verse even begins, you'll be tempted to cut the cord immediately and skip ahead to the next track. Go with your gut on this one.
8. BABY BABY BABY BABY OHH BABY
This satirical track, which is really more of an interlude, is an obvious potshot at the radio-friendly, sample-heavy rap songs that were flooding the airwaves at the time, but the thing is, it kind of holds up on its own, especially if you're already in on the joke. The cameo from Fatman Scoop at the end only adds to the ambiance.
9. LONG ISLAND DEGREES
10. BETTA LISTEN
The brief interlude at the end of “Long Island Degrees” doesn't really lead into this track, but De La attempt to force a connection anyway, with discouraging results. Combined with the previous track, De La Soul has brought listeners a one-two punch of mediocrity. It is what it is.
11. ITZSOWEEZEE (HOT)
The recipient of the second video from the Stakes Is High publicity machine helps right the ship, as Dave goes for dolo, chastising all other rappers by questioning their obsession and dependence on organized crime (“Them Cubans don't care what y'all n----z do / Colombians ain't never ran with your crew...The only Italian you know is Ice-y”) over a simple instrumental that helps punctuate just how silly New York hip hop was back in 1996. As Dave's argument has merit, the song is that much better in my mind (and ears). Still holds up well today, too. I've never cared too much for the remix featuring Truth Enola, though.
12. 4 MORE (FEAT. ZHANE)
I couldn't really get into this song. Although De La Soul are no strangers to hiring R&B singers for their hooks (“A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'” is still one of the greatest De La songs ever recorded), calling in the duo Zhane is a mixed blessing, as they sound decent enough, but not so much that “4 More” actually fits with the rest of Stakes Is High. If anything, this track sounds like a forfeit: De La is now tired of fighting the good fight and will now fall in line with all other rappers who want their shit played on the radio.
13. BIG BROTHER BEAT (FEAT. MOS DEF)
Although this was never an official single, “Big Brother Beat” will be forever referred to in the hip hop history books as the song that introduced Mos Def to a wider audience, and for a relative newcomer, it's amazing how fully formed he sounded right out of the gate. Skeff Anslem's instrumental is a mini-masterpiece of simplicity, which makes sense when you realize that he already has previous experience working with fellow Native Tongues founders A Tribe Called Quest. I found the song to still be fun and engaging today, even if the lyrics themselves are a bit slight.
14. DOWN SYNDROME
The sneak preview aired after “The Bizness” (which was, admittedly, not set up as foreshadowing or anything) finally pays off in the form of the full song. Pos and Dave ignore traditional song structure norms in favor of spitting their rhymes with brute force, which makes the track entertaining while still sounding out of place for a crew calling themselves De La Soul. Even with the hint provided earlier, I had completely forgotten about the existence of this song, so it was nice to throw into the mix as a way to lead up to the massive title track.
15. PONY RIDE (FEAT. TRUTH ENOLA)
But before we can get to “Stakes Is High”, we have to politely sit through this exercise in futility, which features Pos and Dave rhyming over an instrumental that doesn't suit their style, while a Truth Enola guest verse (laid over an entirely different beat) is shoehorned into the middle of the track, like the creamy center of a sandwich cookie that tastes like ass. Although the interlude at the end eventually leads into the next song, it's best for everyone involved to simply hit that “skip” button...now.
16. STAKES IS HIGH
De La Soul's manifesto-masquerading-as-a-title-track features Pos and Dave at their angriest, upset at how hip hop has glorified violence and wealth, treating them as the main focus instead of actively trying to make better-sounding music. (Dave, in particular, is “sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks”. Um, “4 More” much?) De La co-produced this song with the late J. Dilla, and their combined efforts are displayed in a powerful anthem-like offering that may not provide much in the way of solutions, but at least acknowledges that we have a motherfucking problem. Because acceptance is the first step toward getting help, you see. The interludes bookending the track weren't really necessary, though.
The one thing I remember clearly from Jos-B's Reader Review of Stakes Is High is that he really loved the final song, “Sunshine”. Personally, I don't see it: the music is pleasant and all, but not enough so to ground the bombastic heights of the previous track. It's as though “Sunshine” is meant to be a theme for a victorious effort, but De La Soul have hardly won anything. (Addressing the problem is very much appreciated, but the cynic in me would like to point out that hip hop has only gotten worse since Stakes Is High dropped.) However, I loved how the ending of the track takes us right back to the beginning of the album, with the talking heads now discussing 3 Feet High and Rising instead of Criminal Minded. Circle of life, and all that shit.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Okay, I was a bit harsh on Stakes Is High during the second half, but that's just because I really wanted it to sound better than it truly does. However, even with their missteps, De La Soul prove without a doubt that they are capable of operating without the Prince Paul filter, turning in a product that has several outright bangers and that sounds more consistent than Buhloone Mindstate. Although Posdnuos mentions during the title track that “the Native Tongues have officially been reinstated”, that doesn't mean that Stakes Is High is a straight-through conscious effort: in fact, Pos, Dave, and Maseo (mostly resigned to production on Stakes Is High) spend the majority of the album's runtime really fucking pissed off at the new direction hip hop has taken during their brief absence. The playfulness of 3 Feet High and Rising is sorely missed, but then again, De La Soul haven't been feel-good artists for several albums now. Stakes Is High may not sound as urgent as it did back in 1996, but it is an entertaining album that deserves more attention from today's audience than it's been receiving.
BUY OR BURN? Buy this album and listen to it while wondering if there will ever be an official Native Tongues re-reunion. (The answer is no, by the way.) It'll help you pass the time, and you'll be listening to some good music to boot.
BEST TRACKS: “Stakes Is High”; “Big Brother Beat”; “The Bizness”; “Brakes”; “Wonce Again Long Island”; “Supa Emcees”; “Down Syndrome”; “Intro” (yeah, that's right, I listed the fucking intro)
Here's a link to all of the previous De La Soul posts, including the Reader review of Stakes Is High. Enjoy!