De La Soul's two most visible members team up with a French production duo for a comedic ode to '80s hip-hop and the skit-based rap they helped pioneer.
First Serve carries plenty of trademark De La Soul elements. It's a thorough concept record fueled by skits, the story of Jacob "Pop" Life (Posdnous) and Dean "D" Witter (Trugoy) emerging from Dean's alcoholic mom's basement to rap superstardom, culminating with a show in Paris. Without spoiling too much it's sort of a G-rated version of Prince Paul's 1999 opus A Prince Among Thieves, detailing the rise of a hip-hop group without the depressing ending. The group does go through their trials, though, with the MCs becoming annoyed over bad recording habits, fighting over women and who's the true star of the group. Admittedly the story, as with most concept hip-hop albums, can be a little hard to follow. But the group did listeners a real solid by transcribing the entire thing, from skits to choruses, in the CD's inlet. It's a gesture that's often ignored in today's digital marketplace, and definitely adds some incentive to track the disc down in stores.
First Serve is also the name of the group, which is important to note because Maseo isn't along for the ride on this one and the production is handled by a pair of Frenchmen, Chokolate and Khalid. It's been nearly a decade since the last proper De La Soul LP (2004's The Grind Date), and First Serve makes a real effort not to be taken as such despite its skit-heavy nature. More than anything First Serve is a love letter to the rap music that inspired these guys to take up microphones in the first place. Much of the beats are decidedly modern, but other than a few strays into more current production styles ("Clash Symphony", for example, is pretty vintage early-2000s battle rap) a lot of the music here nods appreciatively at groups like the Jungle Brothers along with early Tribe and De La Soul. The settings at times appears to be the late '80s or early '90s with references to Tribe's first LP and East Coast/West Coast beef. But there are also mentions of Pokémon and the fashions in the album artwork are decidedly current, so it's not entirely positive when this fictional group existed.
As a hip-hop album, First Serve sits upon a well-worn and potentially awkward place. On the surface it's almost addictively easy to listen to, the beats smooth and low-key and the raps equally safe to expect a base level of pleasure from. But this safeness can also work against First Serve, as even reading along with the booklet it's hard to get a sense there's much depth to the whole thing, storyline included. Pos and Trugoy rap in an almost spoken word style at times, which helps to make the constant stream of skits tying tracks together feel more connected to the tracks themselves but doesn't always make for engaging rapping. In this sense too does the album feel like a callback to the days of more simplistic, AB couplet rhyming that groups like De La Soul did an excellent job of complicating as part of the Golden Age generation. First Serve isn't a disappointing album by any means -- that is, unless you make the mistake of expecting a De La Soul-quality LP from something the pair obviously made for fun -- but it isn't a very remarkable one, either. The highlights of the disc are undoubtedly in the skits, particularly the intro when Dean's mom (also played by Trugoy) calls him out for taking ecstasy, but there's plenty of quality music for folks who've been waiting too long for Pos and Dave to cut new records. "Pop Life" is the tape's highest point and doesn't feel too far removed from the smoothed out jazz that informs Curren$y's Jet Life camp.
Don't expect to come away from First Serve feeling like you've heard anything surprising or new. But if you're willing to let go of your desires for a proper De La Soul album First Serve should give you plenty of stuff to enjoy for a few weeks. It's humor is classic Pos and Dave, especially when the pair nearly reach their breaking point and cut loose in a battle rap that must have been as fun for the longtime friends to record as it is to listen to. Perhaps the closest parallel to First Serve would be De la's early 2000s AOI releases -- defiantly different from what one would expect from these guys, more a collection of studio exercises than an LP up to their usual standards. But it's also more like comfort food than that divisive pair was, and if any group's earned the right to release a record just because they had fun making it it's these two. Hopefully their reinvigoration leads to a new De la record soon.