When I interviewed Jay-Z a month or so ago,we talked about how the hip-hop that reared us is in a state of stagnation—there’s no denying that heads over 30 are being ignored by corporate nymphs catering to 15-year-olds.
Hova cited Talib Kweli and Common as two of the few wordsmiths left, to which I’ll add Nas, Mos Def, Big Boi, Eminem, Jean Grae, and RZA as Bobby Digital (because he knows, even if Jay disagrees, that America isn’t hip-hop’s epicenter anymore). And now De La Soul—who were never really dead, just underground rocking campuses and throngs of overseas devotees—are re-entering mainstream consciousness with album numero eight, The Grind Date, a superbly sequenced set chock-full of clever entendres, oozing with existentialisms on par with those of Buhloone Mindstate and De La Soul Is Dead.
The Long Island native tongues’ emancipation from Tommy Boy most likely explains the album’s unshackled direction. These original backpackers are better known for keeping it daisy, not gully, and De La usually limit cameos to a relative minimum. But from unexpected appearances by Ghostface Killah and journalist Bönz Malone on down, The Grind Date features a truly diverse cast. Like Kanye West’s, De La’s approach isn’t condescending or moralistic, a defect that befalls many a socially conscious artist wrestling with the intellectual dilemma of being human and an urban oracle (think Common, Lauryn Hill, and Tupac Shakur even). So while no one philosophy dominates here, moods range from introspection to satire, from bravado to the spirit.
Take “Church”—an aria about the Supreme Being in the self, introduced by Spike Lee. Producer Ninth Wonder interpolates with drum loops the horn-driven funk-soul of Portland, Oregon’s homegrown Pleasure, as the Plugs’ prose asserts the current of The Black Album—take the fucking jersey off, son—and “Pull your socks up/get your walk right/or the chalk might outline you one day.” Driven by an infectious cowbell, “Shopping Bags (She Got From You)” isn’t only remarkably accessible for the sometimes lyrically aloof trio, but it’s a hysterical take on hip-hop’s mythical goddess, the chicken head. But the track that most deserves a Jay-Z remix guest spot comes from Seattle newcomer Jake 1: Carried by the Eurodisco outfit Space’s synthesizer-happy “Deliverance,” the skipping effects in “Rock Co.Cane Flow” would challenge any artist attempting lyrical acrobatics over its mercurial tempo. The Grind Date deserves to lure hip-hop out of its romper room, and Hova out of retirement.