Stakes is High
De La Soul Returns With the Help of Thousands

I remember hearing De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate for the first time.

I was a year out of high school, living in a cramped dorm on a college campus in Maine, the furthest I’d ever lived from my suburban Boston home. This may come as a surprise to you, but I didn’t get the most comprehensive hip-hop education growing up in a Massachusetts suburb. I loved DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and felt a giddy excitement when I heard Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It in high school. I followed N.W.A. as they splintered and couldn’t get enough of Ice Cube’s The Predator. But that was about it. Ask me about A Tribe Called Quest or Gang Starr and you’d get a blank look. (I found them both later, the latter through Guru’s awesome Jazzmatazz project.)

And De La Soul? I’d heard 3 Feet High and Rising and wasn’t sure what to make of it. I’d heard a little of De La Soul is Dead and wasn’t thrilled. (I love it now, calm down.) So I had no expectations when I hit play on their third album, the one with the weird title. And 48 minutes later, I was a fan for life. Part of it was the fantastic production, more intricate and slippery than any other rap record I’d heard. Part of it was the guest spot from Maceo Parker, whose contributions made “I Am I Be” my favorite De La Soul song instantly. But a big part of it was the clever and interesting ways Posdnous, Mase and Trugoy wove their rhymes about race and inequality and the dangers of not speaking your mind. This was a whole new world for me, hip-hop that took itself seriously and considered itself art.

As anyone more educated in this area could have told me, there’s plenty of artistic hip-hop. But I’m not sure I could have chosen a better entry point. De La Soul, for nearly 30 years, has been one of the most creative and interesting groups in hip-hop, never settling for the typical, always aiming smarter. I struggle with some of their mid-period work – the still-incomplete Art Official Intelligence trilogy isn’t all it could be – but when they’re on, as Pos and Trugoy (now Dave) were on 2012’s delightful First Serve, and as the full group was on their last proper album, 2004’s The Grind Date, they’re still impressive.

De La Soul’s disappearance in 2004 had as much to do with money as anything, and their absence has left a hole in hip-hop. You can draw a straight line from socially conscious rappers like Kendrick Lamar to the early days of message-conscious rap – he cites Tupac Shakur as his biggest influence, but the cut-and-paste jazz framework that makes up much of his brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly comes from De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, and anyone with a penchant for think-about-it wordplay certainly owes a debt to Pos, Mase and Dave. They’re legends, and like a lot of legends, they’ve seen their sales decline and their output shrink as the world moved on.

But if the members of De La Soul were worried that they had been forgotten, or that people would not recognize their impact, they shouldn’t have been. Like many long-running acts, they turned to Kickstarter last year to fund their new album, asking for $110,000. They got $600,874, which secured their future as independent artists. I love Kickstarter for so many reasons, and one of the big ones is its ability to revitalize the careers of artists who may not have any other way to make new music and get it out there. Like many well-known entities, De La took some heat for turning to crowdfunding – and I should point out that I did not contribute to this particular campaign – but if this is what it took to bring them roaring back, then it was absolutely worth it. And I hope they felt the love.

If not, I’m about to shower them with it. De La Soul’s just-released eighth album is called and the Anonymous Nobody, and it is without doubt their finest hour since their first immortal trilogy. It finally recaptures what I love about this group – their unpredictability, their willingness to go just about anywhere. For a record that is remarkably chill, the band that made it sounds revitalized, ready for anything.

Part of what sets this record apart is the way in which it was made. Sampling has always been a part of what De La does, and they came up before clearing those samples was a legal responsibility. Had they been forced to pay up front for 3 Feet High and Rising, it never would have come out, so dense are its multi-layered samples, and that’s part of the reason you won’t see early De La albums on streaming services. Knowing this time that sample clearances were out of their reach, financially speaking, the three De La Soulers did the only thing they could do: they hired musicians. Dozens of them, in fact. And then they recorded those musicians jamming on various moods for hundreds of hours.

And then they used those hundreds of hours of jamming as raw material, sampling it as they normally would and crafting the album out of those samples. Then they brought in a host of fascinating guests – it’s actually remarkable how much of this album is given over to the guest stars – from the expected (Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, Usher) to the bizarre (Damon Albarn, Justin Hawkins, David Byrne, Little Dragon). The result is all over the place, and yet it hangs together like a suite. It’s one of the few recent hip-hop albums that feels like a journey, like you’ve been someplace when you finish listening to it.

Lyrically, this album is a strong argument for De La Soul’s legacy, and in large part serves as a thank you to the thousands of people who made it possible. Jill Scott’s opening monologue, called “Genesis” and delivered over sumptuous strings, begins with the line “I couldn’t be nobody but myself,” and posits that the time to love something the most is when “it’s reached its lowest and you don’t believe in it anymore and the world done kicked its tail enough that it lost itself.” The message couldn’t be clearer: the support of the fans has brought De La Soul back from the brink, and this album is a reward.

And man, it sounds like it. “Royalty Capes” comes swaggering in on a horn fanfare, sliding into a chill beat with some jazzy saxophone. Dave takes aim at modern rappers and their reliance on technology: “Androids read raps off of iPhones, I choke the blood out of felt tips.” “Us three be the omega like fish oil” is a purely Posdnous kind of line, a clever way of saying they’re the last of the old-school hip-hop royalty. Much of this song is the braggadocio you’d expect, but delivered in such an understated and witty way that it never comes off as arrogant. And the fact that it slips into “Pain,” an absolutely relentless groove with oodles of that De La Soul positivity and a great verse by Snoop Dogg, only makes it better.

For a while, it feels like De La has made a low-key beats-and-rhymes record. “Property of,” a reference to the Art Official Intelligence days, is a long, slow crawl with a verse by Roc Marciano, and “Memory of… (Us)” brings the strings back and enlists Estelle for an old-school hook that feels lifted from a soul song.

The first surprise comes with the brief “CBGB’s” and its seven-minute successor, “Lord Intended.” Both feature full rock bands, seemingly recorded live, and while “CBGB’s” is a minute-long powerhouse, “Lord Intended” is a full-on rock opera. For about half its seven-minute running time, it sounds like Rage Against the Machine on downers, Pos and Dave dropping strange references to Megadeth (a deep cut, in fact) and Black Sabbath. Then, in the second half, the pianos take over and Justin Hawkins of the Darkness takes center stage, and the song achieves a ridiculous sort of orbit, choirs of singers repeating the refrain “fuck everyone, burn everything.” I honestly have no idea what to make of it, but I love it.

From there the surprises keep on rolling. David Byrne turns the off-kilter “Snoopies” into a Talking Heads track: “In a hundred years from now, we will not recognize this place, the dollar store is filled with love, the parking lot is full of grace.” It’s one of the most successful mash-ups of style here. “Greyhounds” brings Usher in for a fairly typical story of a young girl chasing her fame in Los Angeles, but its glossy R&B is so unlike anything else here that it stands out. The bass-driven shimmy of “Trainwreck” segues into “Drawn,” which for most of its run time is a nearly ambient showcase for Little Dragon. When Pos slips in a verse near the end, it’s almost jarring, but it contains one of his best lines here: “Two words, I’m mortal, but the fans lift ‘em both together and remove the apostrophe.”

I’m a huge fan of “Here in After,” the stuttering indie-rock anthem featuring Damon Albarn, and it marries a tremendous verse about saying goodbye to loved ones with a web of electric guitars before Albarn drives it home. “We’re still here now,” the De La boys sing, and no message could be more joyous. The album ends with “Exodus,” which, as Dave sings, is “an outro that’s also an intro.” “We are the present, the past and still the future,” Pos says at the album’s conclusion. “Just common contributors hoping that what we create inspires you to selflessly challenge and contribute. Sincerely, anonymously, nobody.”

If this is it, if this is the capper on an outstanding body of work, then it couldn’t have ended any more perfectly. and the Anonymous Nobody is an album that celebrates the legacy of one of the finest hip-hop groups ever by (ahem) kickstarting them into the future. It is an album unlike any they have ever made, and unlike any hip-hop album you’re likely to hear, a sublimely confident stroll through unfamiliar sounds made wholly De La Soul. I hope this isn’t the end of their road. I hope it’s the start of a renaissance, and I’ll be first in line to help fund whatever they do next. and the Anonymous Nobody is a wonder, a reintroduction and a leap forward in one, a De La Soul album for the ages, and one of the best things I’ve heard this year.

Next week, a rare retraction. Be here. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.