When I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising, I was in…damn, where was I? Seventh grade.
OK, that’s not how the line really goes — the opening to De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes Is High, actually pays homage to BDP’s record Criminal Minded. But a simple title swap makes the statement ring true for me: because when I first heard De La’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, I was in, damn, seventh grade. Now their long-awaited eighth studio album, And the Anonymous Nobody, is finally upon us, more than a decade after their previous proper release, and looking back to their past catalog is definitely in order. But their past catalog technically isn’t there.
That catalog’s been deemed irrefutably important by fans and artists alike, but of De La’s seven prior studio releases, The Grind Date is the only one available to stream. Long story short: Warner Music acquired their catalog in 2002 and has left it tied up in red tape, bound by the verbiage of outdated contracts drawn up before the advent of the new digital landscape and its sample-clearance issues (namely, getting permission from copyright holders to use the soundbites that serve as the backbone for their early recordings). These aren’t emerging artists, though. They’re founding fathers, and when they found themselves wanting to release a new album while avoiding those bureaucratic pitfalls, they looked no further than their own history for a lesson in what not to do. Which brings us to today.
This time, Pos, Dave, and Maseo went the indie route. Instead of letting a major label bankroll their sound collages, they turned to their fans and raised over $600,000 on Kickstarter. They avoided the sample-clearance issues by creating their own sources — some two hundred hours of recordings, manipulated down into this hour-long gem of a record.
It almost plays like a double vinyl, split into four suites with an opening statement by Jill Scott giving us a lesson in hard love (“When do you think it’s time to love something the most?… When it’s at its lowest and you don’t believe in it anymore”). The first quarter is punctuated by “Pain,” a song about facing adversity head-on, with an unexpected appearance from Snoop Dogg. That karaoke-friendly, boogie-tinged number is chased by “Property of Spitkicker.com,” a track with tour-guide narration that serves as a throwback of sorts to De La’s Art Official series: Long Islander Roc Marciano’s sullen swagger is fitting, with Pos delivering lines like “With a current course connect, so we not unsung/Just vets, this mission’s undone” to validate the rapper’s appearance.
For its second quarter, Anonymous Nobody switches into an indie-rock romp courtesy of “CBGBS”; it knocks you down during the hard-rocking “Lord Intended,” only to lift you up to see if you’re OK on the David Byrne–helmed “Snoopies.” The Talking Heads frontman’s appearance isn’t squandered: His chorus, sung with a prog-rock soundbed, gives way to a wobbly instrumental break that sounds like Phat Kat’s “Don’t Nobody Care About Us,” but on acid.
The parade of stars rolls on into act three, with Usher leading the way on “Greyhounds,” crooning the chorus in character, as a bus driver. De La are known for vibrant skits, and they pepper them throughout this tracklist (though they stop short of using them to round out a fuller concept, as on earlier albums, which featured everything from gameshows to flipbooks). Instead, the group’s rap performances wade into voice-acting territory at times, giving their lines the invigorating, cartoonish quality of an Adult Swim script.
The final act is anchored by the track “Whoodeeni”: A nod to the rap group Whodini that interpolates their party classic “The Freaks Come Out at Night,” it features a scene-stealing verse by 2 Chainz, more than holding his own (“I’m a ‘hood star and my trophy’s a gold vert”). The last song on the album, “Exodus,” sung by Pos and Dave (“bound by friendship, fueled and inspired by what’s at stake”), contains the line “[this] outro is also an intro” — a wink at the fact that this album is a reintroduction for some and an entry point for others.
From its crowdsourced genesis to its continued exploration across genres, And the Anonymous Nobody can be seen as the sacred cow killing itself for the sake of experimentation. And despite having a guest list that rivals a Coachella main stage, it’s a cohesive and impeccably sequenced album. Most releases that boast such a diverse array of collaborations do so as a crutch, but with De La it feels like a challenge to themselves and to the listener: They are humble giants, unflappable whether standing next to the icons of yesteryear or the stars of today. That’s because Anonymous Nobody isn’t just an album title — it’s essentially a pseudonym for De La Soul, producer Supa Dave West, and the band Rhythm Roots Allstars, who collectively handled the record’s aesthetic. De La Soul have always had a heavy hand in the production of their albums. Maybe that’s why, when they choose to reinvent themselves, they never miss the mark.