There is a busted pot of daisies on the album cover. Mase throws a punch and he connects lovely to the ribcage. Someone’s brother is a cokehead. A social worker molests his own daughter. The Harrys and Dicks and Toms of the world incessantly push their demos. They got dissed by Arsenio Hall, but they took it and they’re doing things differently. And that’s just a thumbnail sketch of De La Soul’s second album, De La Soul is Dead.
One can imagine the burden on De La Soul following the critical and commercial success of Three Feet High and Rising. So much praise, so much pay, and already pigeonholed as hippies of hip hop. Where to go next? De La Soul went dark and disjointed. The result is an album that addresses their success, their own image, and the trends they saw in the hip hop community (i.e., the growth of gangsta rap). Prince Paul’s mixing mastery is still on display (his quirkiest work is the old-timey, bone-tapping “Pease Porridge”), and Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Mase can still flow like champs. There is even some humor (albeit brief, and sometimes dark) on the album, like the mumbled Slick Rick lyrics, or the kazoos and snappy snaps on “Bitties in the BK Lounge.” Yet overall, De La Soul is Dead is edgier, darker, older, and more cynical than its predecessor. Sure, that’s an easy feat given the Technicolor vibe of their debut, but what astounds is how dark they get. It’s not like it’s all gloomy or anything, but compared to Three Feet High and Rising, it’s none more black.
The three singles off the album are all strong spots. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” is the funkiest of the funky bunch, capturing the excitement of the one day to play after five days of work (which means De La Soul rolls on Shabbos, but doesn’t roll on the Sabbath). “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” relates the group’s frustrations dealing with overzealous aspiring artists who want to use De La Soul to get into the music business. It features a great refrain that could double as a voicemail message. “Keepin’ the Faith” deals with gold diggers and actually features a sample that is reminiscent of the backing tracks on Three Feet High and Rising.
But “Oodles of Os,” the album’s lead off track, presents the marked shift in De La Soul’s tone. Rather than the big synth blasts of “Me, Myself, and I” or a whistling Otis Redding on “Eye Know,” the backing track on “Oodles of Os” is mostly just a jazzy, descending bassline over drums. The sample on the following song, “Talkin’ Bout Hey, Love,” is a little off-kilter and out of tune. By the time you hit “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” in the middle of the album, you are completely immersed in some dark territory. After you listen to the tale of a girl sexually molested by her own dad, you’re then bombarded by “Who Do You Worship,” in which the narrator–a misanthropic dickhead–thinks about how good he feels about being bad.
After all of that, you almost feel the need to step a way and take a break, and those breaks come in the form of one of the album’s skits. The framing narrative of De La Soul is Dead is a bit of pomo self-reflection that would make Charlie Kaufman smile: People who don’t like De La Soul is Dead listening to a stolen copy of De La Soul is Dead. It’s clever and it’s as if De La Soul anticipated that their album would be a commercial failure, especially when compared to their debut.
Since its release, however, De La Soul is Dead has developed a greater following. It’s an album that grows on you with each listen, and what was jarring at first seems less so each go round. At the end of the album, the guys in the framing narrative throw away a copy of De La Soul is Dead. They lament that it lacks pimps, lacks guns, and lacks curse words. Of course, the soul being invisible and intangible, it’s obvious they didn’t sense the album’s soul when they trashed it. They proclaim in unison, “De La Soul is dead.”
So yes, De La Soul is Dead. Long live De La Soul.
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