Though far less visible than they once were (save for the odd festival appearance and occasional genre-hopping collaboration) De La Soul nevertheless remain one of hip-hop’s most revered groups. That their eighth LP, the crowdfunded ‘And The Anonymous Nobody’, has attracted a significant buzz some 12 years after they dropped their last studio album, 2004’s ‘The Grind Date’ (and 27 years since their game-changing debut ‘3 Feet High & Rising’) is testament to the group’s lasting pedigree in a genre notoriously skewed towards younger acts.
As the first LP by a major hip-hop act to be financed solely through Kickstarter (it eventually surpassed its $110,000 target to raise more than $600,000), ‘Anonymous…’ was initially recorded with live instruments by the group’s tour band the Rhythm Roots All-Stars. The production process then saw the 200 hours’ worth of original music stripped apart and sliced and diced by Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo, and producer Supa Dave West, to replicate a backdrop of loops and breakbeats out of mostly sample-free music. Finally, it was topped off with a lengthy and diverse list of guests drafted in for the vocal spots, including Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, 2 Chainz, Damon Albarn, Estelle, Pete Rock, Usher, Roc Marciano, and more.
This, so the pitch goes, amounts to a fan-funded project that’s free to meander off down many different musical paths without regard to the typical record label constraints. And, for the most part, it’s an approach that reaps rich rewards, yielding some of De La’s most interesting and adventurous work for some time.
The superb Snoop-assisted ‘Pain’, a bouncy, breezy joint which signalled the group’s return this past spring, and ‘Royalty Capes’, the recent single on heavy rotation, kick off proceedings nicely. But things really heat up on ‘Property of Spitkicker.com’, a brilliantly understated pair-up with fellow Long Islander and NY hip-hop’s de facto poet laureate Roc Marciano. The ‘Wildstyle’-esque drums combine with charmingly-nagging keys that float in and out of the beat to host some stellar mic work from one and all. It’s a powerhouse jam that banks the album some early credibility points, particular as the tracklist reveals that, um, The Darkness’s Justin Hawkins will take the stage later on.
‘Memory Of… (US)’, featuring Estelle and Pete Rock, and ‘Trainwreck’ help maintain the momentum, the former offering a sweeping orchestral arrangement that adds a potent, expansive quality to the music, the latter bringing De La’s famed symbolic lyrics and storytelling ability to the fore once again.
Things take a left turn around the midway point, and while the aforementioned Justin Hawkins hook-up ‘Lord Intended’ feels like a mid-album slump, ‘Snoopies’ - an electronic art-rock number featuring David Byrne - comes off much better, switching cleverly between the Talking Heads man’s automotive, Kraftwerk-esque groove and the straightforward rap action from Pos and Dave.
Meanwhile, the deceptively pristine sound of ‘Greyhounds’, which features Usher, belies its dark tale of a troubled girl intent on fleeing her hometown for the big city, and places the song in close thematic territory to the group’s classic tragedy ‘Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa’. Throwaway interlude ‘You Go Dave’ offers a similar nod to the past, neatly referencing De La’s 1991 single ‘Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)’ before taking a pop at the risible Silentó’s grotesque 2015 single ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’ single. It reminds us that, even 20 years after the stunning ‘Stakes Is High’, there are few more pleasurable things in life than hearing De La Soul dishing out a solid beatdown to bloated entertainment industry fuckery.
Damon Albarn - with whom De La first collaborated on Gorillaz’ Grammy-winning ‘Feel Good Inc’ in 2005 - stops by on ‘Here In After’. The whimsical instrumental, reflections on death and its “we’re still here now” chant bring a long-lens perspective to the album, and the track feels like a close relative to ‘Fallin’’, the group’s magnificent and still-relevant 1994 team-up with Teenage Fanclub which pondered the perils of becoming passe in the music biz.
Sure, the album swerves wildly into jazz, rock and country music at various points (‘Drawn’, with Swedish synth-pop outfit Little Dragon, proves a particularly curious curveball in which little actual rapping happens until around the 5-minute mark). But that simply chimes with De La’s long lineage of eclecticism. Alas, it’s unlikely that 1989’s ‘3 Feet High & Rising’ could be made today, given the now-prohibitive costs of its famously-kaleidoscopic sample-heavy sound. (A recent New York Times piece examined why the group’s early albums remain locked in digital limbo, and suggested that lengthy renegotiations of every sample on each of those albums may be required before they can be made available digitally.)
Yet whether it’s sampling - and being subsequently sued by - the Turtles on ‘Transmitting Live From Mars’, drafting in Maceo Parker for a saxophone jam on ‘I Be Blowin’’ from their third album, or dueting with Chaka Khan on ‘All Good?’ in 2000, De La’s expansive, maverick tendencies have frequently led them to places that less ambitious hip-hop crews usually shy away from.
Accepted, no-one's pretending that De La's influence over the rap landscape is as significant in 2016 as it once was. Yet ‘And The Anonymous Nobody’ is still an impressive new instalment in what has been a largely-unblemished career run. So it is, then, that more than a quarter-century after they first emerged to quite brilliantly blow apart all preconceptions of how rappers should look and sound, De La Soul commendably remain one of hip-hop’s great independently-minded outlier acts.
Words: Hugh Leask
- - -
- - -