Review: De La Soul, And the Anonymous Nobody

Their best album since Buhloone Mind State. Maybe better.
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There’s no nice way to say this, but frankly the number of recording contracts thrown at shitty rappers with dark trap beats, trashy lyric vibes, and some dunce drawling vowels in front of it, has tested my fucking patience. It’s not even just the sound itself, which is already pretty depressing when it’s done badly (which it usually is, because it’s become very easy to make it), but also the addle and fervor with which all of it is thrown-in to the minute-by-minute dialogue for the attention economy, to extend conversations that, um, might not be worth starting in the first place. Like the stuff if you want, obviously, but don’t try to half-ass it to me that Gucci Mane or his many wannabes need an Academic Critical Dialogue. Even the underground that used to be operating in reaction to that kind of stupidity has no fangs at all; most of it’s in-jokey and insufferably distant in that “ironic” way that allows us to feel like we’re in the right without actually doing anything to prove it, and in trying to be smarter it often ends up losing some of the surface viscera that’s the only reason for the stupid stuff in the first place. To put it bluntly, while the original ideas in popular music are still overwhelmingly coming from the hip-hop sphere, most of it has still failed to account on compositional levels. And on the sheer fame/fandom plane, hip-hop has become the new indie rock, in terms how desperate we are to pump a new flavor-of-the-hour in order to convince ourselves that things can’t possibly be as dire as they might really be.

Anyway, here comes De La Soul’s eighth proper album, and if you just want the skinny, here it is: it’s their most musically ambitious record ever and their best since Buhloone Mind State way back in ’93, eclectic with the beats and gnomic with the wit, and it serves as a heartening rejoinder to the emotional and intellectual thinness of most of even the best current hip-hop. It rewards repeated listens on both deep and surface levels, and though from song to song you might wonder what exactly they’re aiming for, there’s always, always, always a groove going. (Which of course is a noble aim in itself.) In a way, And The Anonymous Nobody reminds me of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, not so much in terms of tone but in terms of how it feels like a conscious reaction to its surroundings. At the height of the EDM that Daft Punk could be credited or blamed for super-sizing in the first place, they made a proudly organic record that was the opposite of what most would’ve expected. By the same token, De La Soul (and Prince Paul) helped set into motion the suburban pop-culture eclecticism that now so dominates hip-hop’s Bandcamp territory. So what do they do now, for their first proper album since 2004? They fund the album entirely through Kickstarter and piece the music together from hours of live jam sessions.

The result is that Anonymous Nobody flows more like a great soul or rock album than a great rap album; indeed, you might be surprised at how little rapping there even is. Partly it’s the many R&B and rock-associated guests shoring things up: Jill Scott, David Byrne, Usher, Damon Albarn, Estelle, Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, and others. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, ‘cause if there’s been a consistent problem with De La Soul, it’s that Posdonus and Dave — clever and on-point as they are — are so consistent with their flows that they don’t distinguish themselves; it’s still hard for me to tell their voices apart. This often results in the rappers’ actual content going past the point of quirkiness to end up not meaning anything at all, even when you get the feeling they’re supposed to. Thus their willingness to ease-up on their own voices lets them make the most of the different vocal colors of all these guests, to fascinating and often thrilling results.

It’s not even that all these experiments work the whole way through: “Greyhounds”, a sad-sounding cautionary tale about a runaway falling into a pimp and back again, is a little syrupy when it gets to Usher’s chorus; “Here In After”, which serves as the album’s big climax toward the end, builds quickly to a big U2-style arena sweep with anthemic guitar chimes, except it ends up more on the Coldplay level than the U2 level. And yet even in those songs, you’re given other things to treasure. “Greyhounds” has these cloudy-blue faded horn sounds like trucks heard from a distant highway on a quiet night, and the almost chirpy but faded piano banging around on a few chords, both of which are good compliments to the naïve quality of the protagonist’s plight. “Here In After” seeps into psychedelic flute and rippling electric guitar prickles and washes of wah-wah and marimba-like percussion in the back half, and ends up really beautiful, especially with Albarn singing in his blissed-out opiate way; it’s a slippery oasis of a song. You end up being able to easily forgive the cloying parts of both songs, because, well, most songs stay on more or less the same level the whole way through. These ones take chances. Even when they fail, you’re interested why they fail, and you get a sense of what’s going on in the eyes of the creators’ minds.

The eclectic ambition culminates in a three-track block of rockish cuts in the middle of the album. The very brief “CBGB’s” is a great little slinker with an almost punky lo-fi surf-guitar groove that I bet Jonathan Richman would love, working in a faded sample of “The New Style” that starts like random clicking and folds into a harmonic fragment, followed soon after by an outright tuneful bar of harmony of vocoder air that I didn’t notice until the third or fourth listen. I wish the song was longer. But it’s the ostensible centerpiece, “Lord Intended”, that’ll be most divisive. At seven minutes, it’s the longest track De La have ever released on a studio album, and it features the guys nonchalantly walking in to a deep throbbing classic rock groove, complete with a squealing blues-guitar hook. “The rock Megadeth,” they call themselves, which is already pretty genius-level (because it’s true; they’ve always rocked better than Megadeth), and that’s before the track unexpectedly seeps into a slow lighters-up piano part with Justin Hawkins spreading his ‘70s arena-rock falsetto all over the place. This in turn builds into a David Gilmour-style guitar solo (which is to say a Mick Ronson-style guitar solo), all of which sounded like an ambitious failure to me on the first few listens but now seems totally comfortable, and makes perfect sense as the big hedonistic centerpiece. Much more frustrating is the third of this rock-y triptych, “Snoopies”, featuring David Byrne, except “features” is inaccurate: it’s a groovy Byrne track and a more anxious chicken-scratch De La track, shoved together without any effort of transition or contrast. It just jolts back and forth between the two completely different grooves, and it’s not like the lyrics seem so follow or even comment on what the other party was saying. Both parts are fine on their own - especially Byrne’s, which is like a harder-grooving and more tuneful version of the stuff he was doing on his ’94 self-titled solo album (nicely-miked snare!) and a hell of a lot more fun than that tiresome art-school dilettante stuff he’s been doing with St. Vincent — but shoved-together like this, it’s like, why? And yet, again: how often do we even get to discuss pop music in these terms?

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But more than the guests, there’s the simple fact that De La have grown into thoughtful craftsmen, sonically. Contrary to what it might be nice to believe, hip-hop has often floundered with live bands in the studio — do people still pretend to like those early Roots albums? — but with Kendrick, Chance, Flying Lotus, and now this, there’s a definite maturity a-brewin’ in the way artists can really coalesce in terms of how they can manipulate organic sounds to result in music that sounds both “real” and “unknown.” While I’m of the very boring opinion that De La never got as potent since Prince Paul left, you can’t accuse them of not trying to grow up, and while that growing-up led to mixed results (Bionix was very good; Mosaic Thumpwas often awkward; Grind Date got mysteriously good reviews at the time and yet I’ll bet none of the fawners has played it once in a decade), here it finally pays off in spades.

What’s so great about their maturity is that they know they don’t have to make a huge deal about it. Hell, they outright mock any expectations of pomp with their entrance, “Royalty Capes”, which at first seems to coronate their return with a big kingly horn hook, and then the horns become an afterthought and they just…start rapping, as if they never left. That’s the thing about them: they don’t feel the need to Announce themselves, they just open the fucking door and walk in, like, “Here we are, take it or leave it.” Soon the horns, which you thought were gonna be the focus of the song, just show up here and there amongst sax licks and a humble funky-bass line and plucked violins and glassy ambience low in the mix, all at a walking pace. They rap with s’s sounding like z’s, welcoming “crystal-carrying pixie peasants and warriors,” swallowed by barracudas, and more surreal imagery that you know you’ll wanna return to. The same feeling comes again on the lovely “Memory of… (Us)”, featuring Estelle and Pete Rock, which starts with more of the swoony violin part from the maternal Jill Scott intro four tracks ago, and you think it’s gonna be some big grand statement, but it falls gracefully into a daydreamy harp-cooing thing, with the always-lovable Estelle bending a wistful melody around French horns and dusky keyboard speckles and lavish strings. There aren’t enough adjectives for the word “wistful” to do the track justice: it’s a bleary love song with plenty of regret and even bitterness, but there’s plenty of love, too. Again the rappers’ stoicism comes into play, because they’re not intending anything in particular to change. It’s just like, “Damn. Sigh. Onward.”

As for the words, De La have always been the kind of rappers who you have to read without actually reading them on the page, if you know what I mean; they’re so elusive that you end up digging-in to what they could possibly mean with all these apparent in-jokes and cryptic non-sequiturs, only to realize that it’s often just about the sound of the words themselves, and the surface pleasure the bizarro references and imagery afford. I’m gonna sound like some Conservative Politician here, but damn, it’s just so refreshing to hear a musically interesting contemporary hip-hop record without any douche-bro offhand mentions of fucking your bitch or living life on codeine. Quoting individual lyrics here almost seems pointless, because they can’t possibly read as good as they play when you’re actually listening and paying attention, but a personal favorite comes on the laid-back “Property of” (the non-existent site they referenced on the two AOI albums 15 years ago): “My tongue is forever under the weather, however, my heart was still lighter than a feather.” That song itself sounds like they’re rapping into an exaggeratedly small chamber, so you get this tinny echo sound around their voices, along with a relaxed organ loop that’s like an early-‘90s chill-out ambient house track, complete with a looped gull call for a hook and a low guitar note thrumming in and out like a lazy foghorn call from a boat.

If I’ve made the album sound boring or overly-studious, let me assure you that there’s plenty of conventionally funky-fun stuff here. Take the infectious squirming bass/flute fits of “Trainwreck”, with the goofily-mopey verse from Pos and a bass tone reminiscent of Fresh-era Sly and the Family Stone — it’s such an easy, charming groove, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the world who could resist it. Or the 2 Chainz-featuring “Whoodeeni”, with its groovy minimalist quick-bleeping synth and a drum that seems to be stuttering even though it’s actually rock-solid the whole way through. And above all, there’s “Pain”, the closest thing to straight Neptunes-style funk on the album, with its 2001-style guitar twitch and fitting verse from Snoop Dogg, who turns in his smoothest and most lovable feature in quite some time: “Used to gang bang, used to love the clashes/Now cash is the only motivation, but not for me, G/I’m into public relations.” Oh, Snoop. Marry me.

Goddamn, what an album. Aside from two throwaway miniatures, only the cluttered, awkward “Nosed Up” with its stupid gorilla verses and generic pseudo-funky bass line, is an out-and-out failure. For me, the kicker is the flat-out gorgeous “Drawn”, which comes near the end of the album and might be the best thing De La Soul have ever done. The rapping itself doesn’t even show up until the last 40 seconds, but the cumulative power of the track’s quiet confidence is quite powerful. Starting with a childlike upright bass and piano line cadencing softly but happily in unison, it’s almost shockingly low-key even for these famously laid-back guys, featuring the heavenly voice of Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon. And when I say “heavenly,” I mean “floating-above-the-clouds-in-whispy-white-light” heavenly. It sustains that dreamy atmosphere for what seems like quite a while, with wobbly synth and plucked violin slowly becoming more noticeable in the mix, like light seen through fog. Barely-audible pings of plucked acoustic guitars saunter in, sometimes at the ends of vocal phrases and sometimes just here and there. The synth ambience starts getting anxious as a militant-sounding snare rises up, and then funereal saxes and cellos disguised as horns (or vice-versa) seep over the horizon. You think it’s gonna come to a big climax of galloping engines…and then the initial childlike riff comes back again, humble and sunny as ever, and Nagano’s voice takes the form of these whispy backward loops decorating the original groove, which is now fuller, steadier. The drums pick up. A casual, funky bass line peeks out. The whole thing has has turned into a gentle head-bobbing groove right before your ears. Stunning.

As I yammered about a couple of months ago in regards to Paul Simon, popular music doesn’t want to grow up, and hip-hop is no exception. But with the “Golden Age” rappers now settling into middle-age, Anonymous Nobody is an encouraging and even touching document of how the premier pop genre of the last 30 years is dealing with the fact that this will all, one day, come to an end. Look at the album cover: a bunch of shouting and fighting and booing and maybe cheering at someone who you have no reason to listen to except that they might be brilliant. As they say: “Saviors? Heroes? Nah. Just common contributors.” It’s hard to imagine this album enjoying any audience at all in a year’s time — it’s so casual, so stoic, so uninterested in impressing a culture that nobody can control. It’s studied; impulsive only in the sense that it’s their impulse to study. It sounds great while it’s playing and means nothing except that it sounds great and will sound just as great 10, 20, 30 years from now. The first great hip-hop album from the over-40 set — a heartening development. It’s closer to a farewell than a beginning. A MINUS