The chorus to a song on De La Soul’s new album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump is a great summary of what could be their credo: “You can do whatever you want, whatever you like, it’s your own life.” They’ve always been staunch individualists, doing whatever they like despite trends or fads. Yet despite the legendary status given their debut album Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul is still one of the most underrated groups in hip-hop. Every album after the first has received less praise; even the fantastic about-face they did on their fourth LP, Stakes Is High, was fairly widely panned or ignored. That album found them transferring their energy away from abstract poetry, toward straightforward, no-nonsense rhymes over sparse, powerful beats. It also featured a few great collaborations with some of the hottest MCs at the time, like Common and Mos Def.
Mosaic Thump, the first edition in the three-disc Art Official Intelligence project, continues stylistically in the path of Stakes Is High, with a straight-ahead hip-hop sound, but has much more of a laid-back feel. Here, with the help of an even larger gang of talented guests, De La Soul is relaxing a bit and throwing a hip-hop party, instead of trying to make statements. They’re maintaining and having fun, not trying to break any new ground but still creating music that is distinctly their own.
From start to end, the feel of Mosaic Thump is loose and fun. The majority of the songs are either feel-good party jams and playful tracks about love or energetic hip-hop anthems built to showcase the talents of Plugs One, Two and Three, Posdnuos, Dave (formerly Trugoy) and Maseo, and their friends. And all three members of De La Soul have skills galore. Pos and Dave are two of the best when it comes to wordplay and adding a friendly sense of humor even to serious rhymes. And Maseo and some talented guest producers like Jay Dee and Rockwilder have put together tight, party-ready beats.
The album is on many levels a showcase of pure hip-hop talent. Some of the collaborations here are downright mind-blowing; especially “My Writes,” with Tash and J-Ro of the Alkaholiks and Xzibit, “I.C. Y’all,” with Busta Rhymes, and “Squat!,” an old-school-style track with Mike D. and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. De La also get big points for bringing back old school legend Busy Bee, and for doing a song with Freddie Foxxx, one of the edgiest MCs around.
If Mosaic Thump doesn’t stand out quite as strongly as their previous albums, it’s because it’s obviously meant as the first chapter of a book, not the whole thing itself. De La meant Art Official Intelligence to be one three-disc album, but their label got them to stretch it into three separate releases. This isn’t to say that the album has any filler on it, it doesn’t. It’s just that this feel like the start of an expansive expression of hip-hop and what it’s all about. If the next two are anywhere as enjoyable as this, it’ll make one amazing three-disc set.