De La Soul have had one of the most fucked-up careers in all of rap. Their 1989 debut album, released on Tommy Boy when they were not long out of high school, was a rightful game-changer. Over its 24 tracks, 3 Feet High and Rising upended ideas about black masculinity and portrayed urban adolescence with more humor, nuance, and depth than anything that had come before. More than a record, it was a total style project, an unprecedented notebook of math class doodles turned verses, and perhaps the first complete work to publicly advance the notion that rap (and the people who made it) could be both literary and “relatable.” While it arguably hasn't aged terribly well, it's a mainstay on critics' lists, and it remains De La Soul's bestselling album even though it’s largely out of print and unavailable digitally. This is because the album had the misfortune to land on Earth at the precise moment that copyright law got real and dinosaur rock bands were taking notice of hip-hop’s habit of sampling. It was particularly heavy in this regard — each of its tracks sampled half a dozen songs by other artists — and it faced a full legal press at a time when hip-hop was still considered by the (white) industry to be an artless fad or a cash cow. The resulting precedents made it so that 3 Feet High and Rising and its follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, would be forever stuck in a kind of semi-cleared sample netherworld that Warner Bros. (which owns the masters) has yet to fully address. For the band, this means that, in the age of the internet, they are effectively barred from making money on their most popular work.
But 3 Feet High and Rising presented another problem for De La Soul. The album, with its rap–flower child aesthetics, brought the group legions of white fans who dug the music without fully understanding the artists who made it. This has cast a long shadow on their career, and it could be argued that every proper album they’ve made since has been shaped in some way by this awkward relationship. Their sophomore effort was called De La Soul Is Dead for a reason: They were trying to shake the willful misinterpretation of their work as peaceful and friendly rap for white people. Their next few records came much harder, and much “blacker,” but failed to match the commercial success of their debut. Many of the people who first supported them were like, “Nice, but where are the daisies tho?”
The tragedy of this is that De La Soul are still so damn good. They’ve never not been. It’s hard to think of another hip-hop act whose career has combined so much sustained quality with so little relative commercial success. Even The Roots eventually found a way to draw a pension from network television. But fate has carved a different path for Dave, Posdnuos, and Maseo — a slow and steady quest to simply make the best music possible under a variety of changing circumstances and the life that has happened to them in the meantime. They have become grown men making generous, layered music, creating work of unerring quality that is retro more in spirit than style. If their music sounds old, it’s because it’s good in a way that it takes years to learn.
This is evident in abundance on their latest release, And the Anonymous Nobody, their first official studio effort since 2004’s The Grind Date. Clocking in at nearly 70 minutes, these 17 tracks were assembled over the course of several years and 200 hours of live band recordings in various studio sessions. In 2015, they launched a Kickstarter to cut those sessions into their own samples and record the album proper, raising $600,000 in two weeks. The resulting effort is a musically complex, studied work that is as live as it is lush, flowing more like an R&B or soul record than a hip-hop one, an effect owing largely to the warm analog tones and the deftly curated roster of guests including Little Dragon, David Byrne, Usher, Snoop Dogg, 2 Chainz, Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz), Roc Marciano, and Justin Hawkins (of The Darkness).
Though Jill Scott delivers an opening invocation, establishing the stakes early — “When do you think it’s time to love something the most? / It’s when it’s reached its lowest and you don’t believe in it” — it is the Snoop Dogg–assisted “Pain” that first brings the album to life, with dark rhythmic guitar in the tradition of “All Good?,” the radio-friendly standout from 2001’s Art Official Intelligence. Snoop manages to seem chill even at 105 bpm, his broken verse sounding like haiku. (Forest Poet Snoop is maybe my favorite Snoop.) Like much of the album, “Pain” is a song out of time. It doesn’t acknowledge any current trend, opting instead to just put together the best bop possible.
De La’s unselfconscious genre mixing seems to reach its best iteration on jams like “Property of Spitkicker.com,” which calls back the robotic framing of Art Official Intelligence (itself a callback to the robotic thump of Whodini’s “5 Minutes of Funk”). Underground vet Roc Marciano brings a cold, raspy ’90s flow to verses like “Rappers is not trying to see me like a diamond tester / I’m on the low, I’m like a silent investor.”
The mini-track “CBGBS” is another highlight, a 90-second freestyle over a tight garage backing where the trio’s voices are given a warm tube distortion treatment while they pop off characteristically dense verses like “Beach boy bonanza, sunrise, get up / Surfin’ on a curb from inception of a setup / Planet in black granite, halos above it / The autopsy can’t top me, beloved.” One potential knock against De La is that their language can be impenetrable, even as their collective past-master flow stays at near perfection. This can make for difficult or sometimes monotonous listening, particularly when set against simplistic beats. Part of what makes Anonymous Nobody work is that the instrumentation is adroit and assorted enough to allow the lyrics to be heard as music that happens to come in the form of words.
This is an album that often elevates its guests to their best work. Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano is gripping over a twilight of upright bass and piano on the crepuscular “Drawn,” and 2 Chainz reigns prophetic on “Whoodeeni.” But some collaborations work better than others. “Snoopies” suffers from the luxury problem of too many good ideas in one song (though David Byrne sounds as confident and clean as Thin White Duke–era Bowie). The mid-album troika of “Greyhounds” / “Sexy Bitch” / “Trainwreck” squanders considerable momentum, largely because De La are most underwhelming when waxing philosophical about women.
“Here In After,” a clear meditation on death, lands sharply in the year when De La's old peer Phife Dawg became the first of the Native Tongues posse to die, essentially, from factors related to being an old man. The song also marks a reunion of the Gorillaz / De La Soul affiliation that, somewhat absurdly, nabbed the rappers their only Grammy. Here they offer a multi-act song journey, vacillating between a Coldplay-adjacent groove and a ’70s space jam. Pretty soon, however, mournful R&B choruses are dropping in from the heavens, and the all-genre retrospective becomes an all-life one. The tune feels too long at the beginning and then not long enough at the end.
De La Soul are old men, and they are not shy about it. As they enter their late 40s, they are beginning to consider death, as one does. Yet they look at this subject from a perspective rarely seen in hip-hop: There is much rap about death by murder, but precious little about the most common brand of death — death by nature. So, just like when they began in 1989, De La Soul are pioneers. And the Anonymous Nobody is neither forced nor hard nor overly self-important; it is patient, deep, good music, and nothing more — and that is revolutionary enough.