Thursday, December 22, 2011

De La Soul: The Grind Date (2004)



Here's a frustrating situation. Backstory: De La Soul is one of the best bands in the world, an enormously vital unit whose discography is the only collection of albums in the last twenty years that invite the back-to-front familiarity and obsession the Beatles once generated. From those LPs you can track their evolution as each record reacts to the prior one: the ingenuity and delight of 3 Feet High and Rising on to the suspicion and regret of De La Soul Is Dead into consciousness into surreal, wonderfully alive maturity. Having mastered all of the above, they began to try and conquer, adapt to, and/or integrate the modern hip hop underground on this, their most recent album.

And then... they stopped. Seven years of silence, save a Nike-sponsored mixtape and a rarities collection, have followed. Oh, they won a Grammy -- for a wildly overplayed Gorillaz single in which they participated. But after setting up some crazy new direction with Grind Date, they went largely dormant, still commanding as hell on stage but absent from the recording studio. The troubling thing is that on this record, they seem onto something new and special for them. Dig the fucking relentless flow backgrounded by a killer obscure soul sample on "He Comes," the audacious bed of Madlib insanity on the glorious "Shopping Bags," their most striking single in years. This isn't just a new De La Soul album, it's a ground-up renovation with not just an eye toward the underground but a thorough seeping in it, scoring production jobs from 9th Wonder, 'Lib, Jake One, not to mention collabs with MF DOOM and Ghostface, like a who's who of the torch-carriers of artistically adventurous rock & roll.

And then there's J Dilla. My gosh, what a coup to hear him working a De La Soul track or two. His pair of cuts, "Verbal Clap" and "Much More," stick out like mad and majorly frontload the record. It's an unprecedented kick to listen to his alien beats and deep-end notions toying with Posdnuos and Trugoy -- it's like some relic from a future we never got to fully experience. Except for the Madlib track, nothing here quite compares. De La is clearly shooting for a renaissance with the out-of-character absence of jokes and skits, which has the double-edged effect of making them more anonymous (less playful) than usual and giving them an unexpected contemporary edge. With a little more refinement -- which ideally would have come with the next LP -- they could have scored another classic.

It's years later now. Dilla is gone, the scene has changed again... and yet Grind Date manages to feel oddly out of step with the way most 2004 hip hop already sounds now. Madlib and DOOM and 9th Wonder (whose weak cut "Church" is sadly the biggest sore point here) and arguably even Dilla himself are still on the cutting edge lips of the genre, but De La is curiously absent from the slate of currently active luminaries. I doubt they're through with us; for all its faults, Grind Date has some material as good and inventive as anything they've ever put down, especially remarkable Jake One-produced closer "Rock Co. Kane Flow," a tempo mindfuck that forecasts sounds that urban radio's just now catching up with. That's impressive as hell. So is how well, in 2004, De La Soul predicted the major thematic thrust of the next seven years of hip hop: sadness, loss, economic strife, utter displacement in the so-called space age.

I mean, my dad's got five kids, man, and I mean
Yo - he hates drivin' a bus but he loves five kids
You feel me?

The main thing I feel though when I hear Grind Date in 2011 is a strong desire to have them back. I think we need them, don't you? And not just on tour with Gorillaz or putting together Nike shoes. Really out there with a new project or three. Feel me?

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