Stressed out and defiant, De La Soul set out to destroy what made them famous on their second album. Almost 20 years later, De La Soul is Dead remains a benchmark of how career suicide albums should sound.
Few artists get to a stage where they need to release an album to dismantle people's perceptions. In many cases, these types of albums are known as "career suicide" albums. Think Faith No More's Angel Dust or Nirvana's In Utero as a reaction to people's perceptions of the band based on hearing only one of their songs. Think Kiss' The Elder as their bid to be taken seriously. Or think Garth Brooks' excursion as Chris Gaines as his reaction to…something.
In terms of hip-hop, De La Soul was one of the pioneers of the genre, so it was appropriate that the band released one of the first perceived "career suicide" albums in hip-hop. De La Soul is Dead was released in 1991 as gangsta rap was still the dominant force in rap. Before Dr. Dre's The Chronic made gangsta rap more palatable to suburbia, bands like N.W.A. and the Geto Boys as well as Ice Cube's solo work participated in a one-upsmanship in terms of their hardness. This left De La Soul even more out of the mainstream than when they released their classic debut album Three Feet High and Rising. In addition to competing with gangsta rap on the radio, De La Soul was dealing with the stresses of releasing a follow-up album to an instant classic, a mass of hangers-on begging them to listen to their demo and the label of being "the hippies of hip-hop."
All this pressure was heard on De La Soul Is Dead a dark, stressed-out, defiant album that courted the concept of a career suicide album. When almost every major hip-hop artist in the early '90s incorporated a liberal amount of posturing, De La Soul's sophomore album was a loosely-based concept album where a group of kids were trashing the album as it was being played. To further dare audiences not to like the album, the issues like child abuse ("Millie Pulled A Gun on Santa") and drug addiction ("My Brother's a Basehead") were addressed. Even the album's biggest hit, "Ring Ring Ring" is primarily about people chasing the band down to get them to listen to their demo tape.
Difficult, uneven, and whiney are some words that are used to describe De La Soul Is Dead. So why does it work? Mainly because the band didn't confuse releasing a challenging album with releasing an album that was alienating. The only time De La Soul's confrontational approach doesn't work is on "Pease Porridge". The song is solid enough, injecting plenty of humor with a play on a nursery rhyme and an amusing imitation of Kermit the Frog, but when DJ Pasemaster Mase sings "Yeah… my tolerance level has now peaked / and now it’s time for some heads to get flown," it rings shallow, much like how A Tribe Called Quest's attempt to appear more hardcore on Midnight Mauraders marred that otherwise classic album.
De La Soul paid for its daring. De La Soul Is Dead didn't sell as many copies as their debut, even though the album was one of the first albums to receive a perfect five-mic rating in The Source magazine. But time has been far kinder to De La Soul's sophomore album than many other albums released in 1991. And despite its 70-plus minute length, the album actually picks up steam toward the end, cumulating in one of the strongest groups of songs to appear at the end of an album in hip-hop or rock.
If De La Soul released De La Soul Is Dead to get the spotlight of fame off the band, they accomplished this mission in spades. This enabled the band to release a more appealing, but no less challenging follow-up Buhloone Mindstate, which, like De La Soul Is Dead, seemed to be released about a decade before its time. In fact, De La Soul's sophomore album succeeded in pushing the band back into the underground for most of the '90s. It wasn't until their Art of Intelligence releases in the early part of last decade when the band started to reemerge commercially.
The famous cover of De La Soul Is Dead, a picture of a planter of dying daises tipped over, is one of the best album covers of all time because it perfectly sums up the album in a simple image. The band celebrated the dying of the daisy and took a verbal swipe at Arsenio Hall (someone who provided a huge boost to hip-hop artists on his late night talk show) on "Pass the Plugs". It's the stuff that makes record label execs lose hair and take stock in Maalox. In the short-run, De La Soul Is Dead seemed a huge misfire for De La Soul. But nearly 20 years after its release, it's a testament of a band who always knew it was in for the long haul. All career suicide albums should sound this great.