In 1989 De La Soul’s classic debut album 3 Feet High and Rising set them up with a persona built around cryptic lyrics, psuedonyms, and a super-creative, eclectic approach to music. The two albums after it — 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead and 1993’s Bulhoone Mindstate — saw them vocally pushing against the “alternative hip-hop” and “psychedelic hip-hop” tags that were hung on them, due to the first album’s day-glo cover art and their perceived bohemian-ism. But at the same time both of those albums’ lyrics were on the whole even more enigmatic than those on 3 Feet High and Rising, filled with in-jokes and their own slanguage. In the middle of Bulhoone Mindstate, however, was a song that broke through the mystery in an almost startling way. “I Am I Be” still stands as one of the most introspective hip-hop songs; its emotional bluntness paved the way for De La Soul to push their sound in a more direct, starker direction. No De La Soul song since that one has been quite as open-hearted, yet it stands as the beginning of the second phase of De La’s career.
Stakes Is High (1996) was the full-length statement that followed — here the trio displayed their skills as strongly as ever, yet they used them for different purposes. They tried to make an album anyone could understand, one that would sound good blaring out of jeeps everywhere, and they succeeded. While they were pushing for a broader audience, they did their best to tell the people what was in their hearts. The album wasn’t maybe as emotional as “I Am I Be”, but it was just as open and honest, and contained many pointed criticisms of hip-hop and society. The album was derided by many who couldn’t take the new style as too preachy, which perhaps is why the two albums after it — Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000) and AOI: Bionix (2001) — were less socially aware overall, and polished up their newly straightforward style with more R&B hooks and popular guest stars. Both albums seemed to be in part a stab at commercial success. De La’s newest album, The Grind Date, is overall in much the same vein as both AOI albums, but where it fits in the world of hip-hop is different. Here De La Soul seem less concerned with playing with their sound to see if it’ll make them more money, more into shining a spotlight on what they’ve doing since 1989, in the most basic terms: rhyming over beats.
The title The Grind Date refers to the fact that De La Soul now see themselves as hip-hop laborers, working all year long at recording and touring. The album’s cover art is a calendar filled with appointments and plans, a reminder that De La Soul are working hard at what they do. The Grind Date is a celebration of the labor involved in making music — its songs have a let’s-get-down-to-basics stance that mimics that attitude. Or as they put it on the title track, “When it comes to putting in work/ Once again it’s on.” Both Posdnous and Dave (the artist formerly known as Trugoy) ocassionally rhyme autobiographically or throw in social and political messages, but they mostly focus on showing off how well they can write and perform their rhymes. Stakes Is High and the albums after it have especially showcased Posdnous’ ability to write carefully crafted rhymes, and this album is no exception. He’s always one step ahead of you, throwing in phrases and references that you’ll get a few listens later. And Dave is no slouch as an MC either; his voice seems a bit rougher here, but he still exudes a casual charm and hidden fierceness. On The Grind Date more often than not they’re doing what MCs historically have done — bragging and boasting while showing off the magic you can achieve with words if you phrase them right. They don’t sound like out to deliver big messages or make a big statement, just to show you what they can do.
The Grind Date has an economy to it that suits De La Soul’s new workmanlike perspective; at 12 songs it’s the most concise album they’ve made yet. Every song seems carefully put together, both by De La and their impressive collection of producers and guest MCs. If The Grind Date is meant as a showcase of the tools De La have at their disposal, it’s also a similar showcase for a handful of today’s stars. The trio is boosted greatly by how solid the musical tracks are, due to the hard work and creativity of the album’s five producers: Supa Dave West, J. Dilla, Madlib, 9th Wonder and Jake One. Hip-hop today is a producer’s world, and De La Soul knows it. They’ve selected some of the hottest producers around, and each came up with tracks that suit De La well, keeping things simple while using sweet soul sounds to hook the ear and fresh beats to move heads and feet. This is the first De La Soul album where an instrumental version would be something worth listening to for non-DJs.
The last five songs on the album complete the album’s celebration of hip-hop craftmanship by focusing even further on the art of MCing, by featuring talented guests. With the possible exception of “No”, featuring the component but not showstopping newcomer Butta Verses, these MC collaborations are dynamite. Ghostface is a lively presence on “He Comes”, Flava Flav shows he hasn’t run out of energy by hyping up “Come on Down”, Common brings out De La’s introspective side on “Days of Our Lives”, and the album closes with perhaps its highlight, “Rock Co.Kane Flow” featuring MF Doom. This last track is both a fine showcase for all the skills involved in hip-hop music and an experiment, as De La and Doom play a game of “who can keep up with the beat” as Jake One varies the tempo of the piano-laden track in exciting ways. “Rock Co.Kane Flow” takes The Grind Date out on an adventurous note, but the dominant descriptive word for the album is “solid”. That’s no criticism, as De La Soul’s intent seems to be to show that they’re still creating rock-solid music over a decade after their supposed heyday. Besides… sometimes a solid 12-track album, with no real lulls, is just what you need. These days De La Soul view themselves as a reliable force, consistently rocking audiences at home and in clubs; the quality level of The Grind Date shows they are that, and they have what it takes to continue at it.