The first thing I heard upon cracking open De La Soul’s fifth studio release, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, was a perfectly bored- sounding individual stating that “THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF HARRY ALLEN, THE VOICE.” The three-second voice stamp, looped to recur about once a minute for the length of the CD, was custom-made for my advance copy of the album, as one was for every disc that Tommy Boy sent out to critics. Their target is the latest form of biting to afflict the music industry: consumers—or industry insiders—taking CDs, ripping MP3 files, and uploading them onto the Internet, where, with an application like Napster or any of its diverse knockoffs, people anywhere can locate and download them. Had I decided to join as an active member of this digital music lover’s club, every file I sent into the matrix would be traceable back to, “HARRY ALLEN, THE VOICE.” How embarrassing.
Of course, with the appropriate waveform editing software, one could straightforwardly delete every one of those tags, effectively undoing Tommy Boy’s prophylactic tactic. That would be très De La Soul. At any number of inflection points during their career, they’ve seemed to be working at erasing somebody else’s crude splotch on their vision. Like trying to change their now classic 3 Feet High and Rising album cover, which they originally hated (and from which they subsequently recoiled: AOI is the first album since that debut on which the crew’s faces clearly appear). Then offing themselves on De La Soul Is Dead, after the D.A.I.S.Y. Age unexpectedly ran as rampant as kudzu. Then struggling on Stakes Is High to wipe hip-hop’s frantic gangsterism off the map, only to, on this album, face off against an even more grotesque monster: the culture’s intransigent hypercommercialism.
On AOI‘s first single, “Oooh.,” featuring the pit-bull-voiced Redman, that scourge is perhaps most poignantly signified by the “shiny suit” rap albums a burglar, hitting Dave’s crib on Christmas Eve, tastefully leaves behind. In the track’s Wizard of Oz/The Wiz-inspired video, Redman plays the great and powerful Oz, while Dorothy is played by Busta Rhymes’s Flipmode chanteuse, Rah Digga. Bolstered by these gritty antimaterialists, the trio—as Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion—go on doing what great artists are never afraid of doing: looking ridiculous. At the same time they gleefully appropriate American culture’s fondest cinematic treatise on lost causes, wish fulfillment, and the incapacitating power of narcotics. Whereas on numerous other hip-hop albums, drugs provide stylish recreation and/or buckets of cash, on AOI‘s running “Ghostweed” skit, committed users acquire the ultimate power in an overmonetized, degraded hip-hop milieu: the ability to sound exactly like the rapper they emulate. (Cameos by Pharoahe Monch, the Roots’ Black Thought, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife aid this illusion.) Who cares that when using the product “brought to you by Wack-to-Mack, Inc. . . . brain damage may occur”? Aren’t you already brain damaged if you’re an M.C. who wants to sound just like someone else? (Xzibit A: the trashing many have dealt Sean “Puffy” Combs for sponsoring the talented rapper Shyne, based less on Shyne’s alleged criminal exploits than on a vocal similarity to Biggie that is positively . . . is there an adjectival form of the word “séance”?)
Part of what has always most captivated me about De La Soul is the naive, windup quality of their records. While hip-hop is obviously more recombinant than most musics, De La Soul’s has been more recombinant than most hip-hop. They never seem afraid to put any utterance or sound into their records. A large part of the credit for or curse of this goes to former producer Prince Paul, who, having spun away from the De La camp like a pi-meson, continues his sonic follies with projects like Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Of course, today, publishing greed and a failure of imagination on the part of rights agencies have rendered records like De La’s entrée commercially unworkable; sample clearances alone make albums like 3 Feet relics of a more expectant time. Yet Paul’s influence still imbues the crew, even on sparse tracks like “View,” where piano chords disappear and reappear like poltergeists over a martial drumbeat, while Posdnous—one of the genre’s greatest unremarked vocalist-lyricists—and Dave’s semantic arrangements tacitly defy the 16-bars chorus-hook conventions they have long resisted. In kind, the crew have just about stopped simplifying their obscure texts and twin language to accommodate the inattentive masses, as they did on Stakes Is High. Check “Declaration,” which echoes 1993’s wildly underrated Buhloone Mind State‘s “I Am I Be” in style and syntax. Yet in some ways, AOI may be their most “radio-friendly” release even as they chomp against the system.
On “All Good?” the inimitable Chaka Khan wails the chorus—”It ain’t all good, and that’s the truth”—while Pos and Dave weave a “hip-hop as femme fatale” narrative, in the manner of Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” over a burbling bass and clucking guitar. While, in this marketplace, Chaka’s ruby-red kiss is no assurance of either airplay or sales—that would call for a Macy Gray featurette, correct?—it certainly can’t hurt. Same with “With Me,” which appropriates Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance,” and the sultry, womblike “Copa (Cabanga).” Meanwhile, “Squat!” ‘s exceptionally spirited appearance by the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Ad Rock, who actually sound like rappers for once, will attract some new fans. Even with the now obligatory Busta Rhymes cameo, it’s clear that their guests—Chief Rocker Busy Bee, Freddie Foxxx, Xzibit, J-Ro, and the magnificent Tash from Tha Alkoholiks—were chosen because De La are fans, not because having [blank] spit on your track will get you X number of adds. And throughout, the beats are varied and melodic.
Yet here is the obstacle. In the computer sciences to which De La’s album title alludes, artificial intelligence, or A.I., is that quality by which we render machines “smart”—capable of autonomous decision-making that gets work done and takes the load off people. De La Soul argues the artists’ common cry: that art, and intelligence, cannot be quantized, reduced to a formula, “formula” being the efficiency that, ultimately, every commercial process seeks, and from which hip-hop increasingly suffers. However, the puzzle wrapped in an enigma is that often, to get such a message understood by large numbers of people, one must express it in terms that calculatingly speak to the common denominator. In other words, one must come up with a formula. Hence, De La may have made their most formulaic album to date in order to speak against the formularization of hip-hop. What most comes through on AOI is the feeling of an album more muted than their sonically exuberant past—”Ring Ring Ring,” “Pease Porridge”—would have predicted, more musically “r&b” than one might expect given their often pointed lyrics, which constitute a kind of hard center within the music’s sweet, chewy coating. It’s as if they’re trying to fight commerciality by being “commercial”—a very curious, if not altogether unprecedented, dynamic indeed.