Last Friday, Long Island rap greats De La Soul shocked and delighted the world in the best of ways by putting their entire Tommy Boy-released discography up for free download for 24 hours. Folks who’ve never experienced the group’s output, or perhaps hadn’t heard it in a while, flocked to their website in droves to re-visit one of the most consistent catalogs in hip-hop. Part of what makes De La so revered, and their work so acclaimed, is that you could make a case for each and every one of their albums being their best. Everyone has a favorite De La record, so with these jams fresh in our ears, we decided to make the case for each.
See also: De La Soul Live
3 Feet High and Rising
The only album that could rival Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in terms of the most influential rap album of all time, De La’s landmark debut 3 Feet High and Rising can be traced in the DNA of each and every rap album that has a track which isn’t a song. Yes, this record, under the brilliant guide of producer Prince Paul, created the rap skit. 3 Feet High and Rising is also a shining example of what a strong debut can do in terms of instantly defining an artist and connecting with an audience. While the past 25 years of De La mentions in any sort of retrospective has beat us over the head with the images from the “Me, Myself and I” video, it is indicative of the unique world 3 Feet High and Rising creates. From the defined environments to the inventive language, it’s not a record that followed any trend, but rather lead the way for listeners to get a different slice of New York. The positive vibes and catchy hodgepodge of melodies also made 3 Feet incredibly accessible and a frequent title holder of listeners’ “first rap album.”
De La Soul is Dead
But as strong as 3 Feet High and Rising was as a debut, De La Soul is Dead was a bold reconstruction of a sophomore album. With a cover art that declared their “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” was, well, dead, its skits and subject matter broke the fourth wall discussing how misunderstood and mislabeled the group had been, but didn’t let these gripes get in the way of analyzing relationships both with their interactions in their communities as well as continuing some of the boldest storytelling in rap with “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “Keeping the Faith.” Still backed by producer Prince Paul, the production heard here is as sharp as sample-collage production gets. The final De La album before the crackdown on sampling laws, it’s an incredibly strong offering that dabbled in everything rap was offering at the time.
De La’s last album with Prince Paul is most known for showing an ahead-of-its-time maturity, as well as an incredibly ambitious organic production. Gone were the Native Tongue guest appearances and teenage irreverence, but that’s not to say they were replaced by a dour methodology or by frequent super-serious reminders of how old they were. It had been a few years, and at the end of their early 20s, new responsibilities and new perspectives worked their way into the album’s themes, making it among the first of its kind. The autobiographical “I Am I Be” might be the group’s finest hour, a song that still can send chills. Adding to its pedigree, the album also features a guest appearance by the great Maceo Parker. It’s as well-rounded and defined of a statement as rap albums get.
Stakes is High
The group’s first release without the oversight of Prince Paul, Stakes is High is probably the most divisive record in the De La catalog. Some view Paul’s absence as what allowed for a purer look at what the group contributes to their sound, others see Paul’s departure as taking away the magnifying glass of what played to the group’s strengths. Stakes in High also happens to be arguably the most misinterpreted release in the group’s catalog. Released in 1996, the lack of context for the group’s lyrical criticisms have dismissed (or, even wrongly championed) the album as being an indictment of where mainstream hip-hop was headed at the time, as opposed to the struggles of middle class downward mobility. As Thun wrote about the album a few years ago, “They do not claim that there is a casual connection between the rise of greedy, violent, shallow rapping and social deterioration. Rather, they express their frustration at their predicament as it relates to these seemingly parallel processes.” Still, the album boasts the Dilla-produced title track and the classic “Itzoweezee.”
Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump
After a four year absence, De La returned with Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. The first in what was a planned trilogy to finish up their deal with Tommy Boy, it boasted the Prince Paul produced single “Oooh,” which featured Redman and had a Wizard of Oz themed video that had Rah Digga dressed as Dorothy. They performed the single on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The guest appearances were varied as well, featuring everyone from Chaka Khan to rap pioneer Busy Bee to Mike D and Adrock of the Beastie Boys to even a skit with Pharoahe Monch. While it has its moments, and was nominated for a Grammy, it’s considered the group’s weakest outing. Although you could certainly make a case for it having the coolest title.
The second of the Art Official Intelligence records (the third, a DJ record, remains unreleased), AOI: Bionix sounds almost like a stronger version of what Mosaic Thump attempted. While the signature De La sound was still intact, the vibe of the record fit much better into a late-2001 hip-hop soundscape, aided by the hit single “Baby Phat” featuring Devin the Dude, who seemed just on the cusp of being a breakthrough hip-hop superstar. The album also boasted the miracle of reworking Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” into the all-seasons party jam “Simply Having” and the Cee-Lo assisted “Held Down,” which seemed to be somewhere in the credits of every motion picture released over the next three years.
In summation, a person’s favorite De La Soul album tells you so much about them that we are surprised it isn’t a required question on popular online dating sites. It’s also an answer that has a tendency to change over the course of a listener’s life. Perhaps the fact that 3 Feet High and Rising could only have been made in 1989 makes it sound somewhat dated to you, compared to the timelessness of a record like Buhloone Mindstate. Maybe the transparent struggles of Stakes is High allow you to relate to it a bit more than De La Soul is Dead. Maybe you really, really like saying the words “Mosaic Thump.” Or maybe you missed one of these albums when they were first released and just hearing them now resonates with you to the point of it’s your new favorite day-to-day soundtrack. These conversations are why De La Soul are perhaps the greatest rap group of all time. After all, not many other conversations about a group’s discography could as easily contain the question “What do you know about music, hamster penis?”
But seriously, Buhloone Mindstate is their best.