It's been eleven years since the release of 3 Feet High and Rising, a whimsical sonic collage of obscure samples, abstract flows, and inside jokes created by three 19-20 year old cats from Long Island and Stetsasonic DJ/producer Prince Paul. This album sounded completely different from anything that existed before in the world of hip-hop and established De La Soul as some D.A.I.S.Y.-age, bugged out, brothers-from-another-planet who truly occupied their own universe. While they have continued to steadfastly do their own thing in the decade-plus since this album, they have also spent a great deal of time fighting against images and expectations that they themselves created. The follow-up to 3 Feet, De La Soul is Dead (1991), was a brilliantly crafted rebuttal to the debut right down to the busted flowerpot on the cover. De La became the first group in hip-hop to surpass their own classic album by creating a musical disclaimer to it that managed to be even more engrossing. On their third album, Buhloone Mindstate ('93), they took even more liberties with their sound, pushing horns into the forefront (even enlisting sax legend Maceo Parker) and writing more mature and introspective lyrics. While the album is truly a masterpiece, it was a flop commercially and in the mainstream continues to be one of the most misunderstood and slept-on albums of last decade. Perhaps embittered by Buhloone's failure or by the rise of material-minded, skill-deprived MC's getting over, De La then released Stakes is High ('96). An angry declaration-of-war against jigginess, this album showed us still another face of De La. Only this face seemed bitter, almost defensive as it addressed hip-hop's current state. While it was easy to see why they could be upset, for some fans hearing a group as innovative as De La Soul spend an entire album obsessing over wack MC's was somewhat disconcerting. They used to be too caught up in their own universe to care.
Now four years after feeding us that somewhat bitter pill, the trio returns with Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, the first volume in what is scheduled to be a three volume set. After months of delays the album arrives amidst questions of whether or not Plugs One (Pos), Two (Dave, formerly Trugoy), and Three (Maseo) can still remain relevant in today's cutthroat rap game. Hip-hop is a young man's sport that has a long history of disrespecting its elders. Long careers are rare, especially for those who wait three or four years between putting out albums. De La need look no further than legendary acts like Run-DMC or Public Enemy for groups who have been unable to remain prominent in the scene despite having advanced the art form to dizzying heights. A closer look at their once tight inner circle, the Native Tongue movement, also shows the wear and tear of age. A Tribe Called Quest folded amidst inner turmoil and lukewarm reception for their last two outings. Worse still is the case of the movement's founders, The Jungle Brothers, who just finished up a tour opening for the Backstreet Boys in an effort to push their latest commercially ignored album. Despite these concerns, De La Soul continue on and with Art Official Intelligence, they have blessed hip-hop with an album that should please finicky heads both old and new. Although it is in many senses the most mainstream album they have ever released, it possesses an exuberance and joie de vivre that Stakes is High did not. Pos, Dave, and Maseo are having fun again and it shows in the music, making this easily one of the best albums of the past couple of years.
One of the most interesting and exciting things about the new album is the eclectic guest list. Instead of filling the album with the usual suspects (Mos Def, Common, Q-Tip, etc.) De La enlists artists who you wouldn't normally associate with them and brings them into their world. The strategy works like a charm. The first example of it paying dividends comes on the second track "My Writes" which features Tash and J-Ro of Tha Liks along with Xzibit, this year's hardest working MC. Over a simple yet infectious keyboard vamp with Scratch of the Roots providing vocal cuts, each MC catches wreck and lets us know what's in store: "..situation's getting' drastic, but see songs like this is why this album's goin' classic" spits Tash. A bold statement, but one that De La and friends continually back up over the course of the album's sixty-six minutes. The next song, "Oooh" featuring Redman is the first single off the album and deservedly so. This joint has a freshness and spirit that is unmatched by anything else occupying the airwaves right now. With the Funk Doc spitting maniacally on the hook, Pos and Dave hold it down over one of the funkiest beats on the album. If there's any justice in the current urban music landscape, this song will become a radio/club anthem.
An old school, party vibe permeates many tracks on the album. The collaboration with Mike D. and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, "Squat!" will have you wondering what took these guys so long to get into a studio together because the chemistry is instant and it's worth the wait just to hear Ad-Rock declare "listen Guilianni you can kiss my ass!" in his trademark high-pitched nasal whine. R&B legend Chaka Kahn lends some gritty soul to "All Good?" even legendary old-school MC Busy Bee pops up to freak it over the beat from Wild Style on "Words From the Chief Rocker". It's not just the establish stars that shine here either. Female MC Indeed rips the opening verse of "Set The Mood", one of the album's many highlights, before Pos comes in to finish the job.
The abundance of guest appearances doesn't mean that De La can no longer handle their business on their own. Pos, in particular, has a lyrical field day on Art Official, dropping countless one-liners throughout. "Declaration" features Pos spitting flames over a dark, neck-snapping beat while Maseo scratches in vocal samples by Mobb Deep, The Roots, Inspectah Deck, and others. This track will have heads bobbing one minute and throbbing the next once Pos' lyrics sink in. More evidence of De La's verbal and song-crafting prowess exist on the cautionary "Foolin'" and the jazzy, drum-freaking "View". Out of all the non-collaboration cuts, "The Art of Getting Jumped" is probably the song that will make the most noise. Over a slightly Latin beat, De La breakdown the ill situations that transpire in clubs with trademark good humor. This leads perfectly into the album's closer, "U Don't Wanna B.D.S. (Bust Dat Shit)", which features Maseo taking a solo turn on the mic while Freddie Foxxx makes various wild threats to fake gangstas who talk a good game and can't back it up. The track manages to be funny and serious at the same time, the listener can't really be sure of its true intent. No matter, it's a gem regardless. This is what separates De La from the rest of the pack, you sometimes need to look beneath the surface to figure everything out and even then the chances are you'll still be confused.
Despite all the highlights, there are still some things that hold AOI back from being a flawless album. Like almost any album with 17 tracks on it, there are some songs that could have been jettisoned. The two Supa Dave West-produced tracks, "U Can Do (Life)" and "Copa (Cabanga)" are somewhat lackluster in comparison to the rest of the album, primarily because of mediocre hooks. And "I.C. Y'All", the Rockwilder-produced cut with the obligatory Busta Rhymes cameo is completely unnecessary. With his umpteenth guest appearance coming on the heels of his third album in three years, Busta is really starting to spread himself too thin and his presence detracts rather than adds to this album's quality. Despite these small glitches, De La Soul has given us an outstanding album that will solidify their staying power for at least a little while longer. After 11 years of making records amongst this "dog eat dog competition", you can't ask for much more than that.