De La Soul :: Stakes Is High :: Tommy Boy
** RapReviews "Back to the Lab" series **
as reviewed by Andrew Matson

Rap music is largely represented to the general public in video format. Visual images substitute for what could be called an ongoing hip-hop "state of the industry" address. One might blame it on MTV, BET, Hype Williams, Ja Rule, even Jay-Z or anyone currently bling-blinging their way across our TV screens, but the hip-hop community as a whole is to blame for the advent of the overblown, glossified, misogynistic, money-obsessed and (usually) artistically bereft rap "artist." Since the market is there and people will buy the records, there is really nothing stopping the likes of Fabolos, Nelly, or even the Big Tymers (to use a few of the industry's favorite whipping-boys) from making a cool mill by flashing some bills while rocking a precisely marketed sound. Plus some Ferraris. And some Moet. You get the picture. Somewhere along the line of hip-hop's inception into the pop arena, lavish lifestyles have been sold along with and instead of actual music. But enough grandstanding.

It's not an original criticism, and to be fair, most of the aforementioned rappers do actually posses some talent. But the fact of the matter is that a display of said talent will not necessarily sell records, while a pretty picture of what their talent could supposedly buy will. This is not new, and it happens on various degrees. And while it may be at its most obvious right now, this commercial state of affairs has been a reality for upwards of eight years within the broad parameters of "the rap scene." Music is being dumbed down because audiences are lazy, musicians become lazy to match audiences, and pop music basically becomes a lie. The best and most biting indictment of the Versace-queen fake rapper actually came in 1996; the first and last word on what it means to be a real MC, a real artist, and a real contributor to hip-hop in the face of material wealth and cheap thrills was issued by De La Soul in the form of "Stakes Is High." In hip-hop, every album should be a mission statement or a call to arms. This is both. Prince Paul is gone completely for the first time in De La's career, but familiar hands man the production as De La themselves craft tracks with the likes of Skeff Anselm and Jay Dee to further the Native Tongues' sound. The beats are raw and organic, subtle yet heavy. De La Soul has always been called unique, so it makes sense that the sound of telephone buttons carry the melody during "4 More" and unusual samples are used throughout the album, but the beats are predominantly rooted in soft keyboard backgrounds and deep, natural drums. "Stakes Is High" could have had a drummer, the beats sound that alive. From the bottom up, "Stakes" has a comfortable sound that is deceptively complex. The samples are carefully chosen and sparingly used, creating a decidedly less-is-more, no-gloss sonic statement. This would still be an important record without vocals, and to outshine these beats is damn near impossible, and no group more consistently does the impossible than De La Soul. This is a lyrical record, first and foremost. De La made music that is as complex as its MCs are, full of references and painstakingly crafted lines while always on the beat, but the tracks are subdued just enough to let the lyrics take their deserved center stage. Indeed, "Stakes Is High" carries its message most fluently through the capable tongues of Trugoy the Dove and Posdnuos. I'm a biased fan, but this album deserves to be a contender for the best lyrical showing of any artist or group, EVER. Don't believe me? Read on.

The Intro is not the usual throwaway garbage that precedes most hip-hop albums. It begins with snippets of dialogue as people discuss when and where they first heard KRS-One's "Criminal Minded." After homage is paid to the KRS classic, Plugs One and Two freestyle over a sparse beat for a while in a loose and irreverent way. The playful and nonsensical raps are just for the hell of it, while the other part of the intro is a nod to a serious piece of hip-hop history. I didn't think about it at first, but just like that, in its first few minutes, "Stakes Is High" begins to represent exactly what De La Soul is about: intelligence, fun, quality and respect. All at once. The next track, "Supa Emcees", hits hard as a reminder that De La is enlisted in the game for good as the MC you wish you were. Dove and Pos take a mature stance and bemoan the state of the modern day rapper while they wonder, "Whatever happened to the emcees?" In hip-hop, christening yourself a "Supa" MC begs for lyrical back-up. Check this part of Posdnuos' rhyme:

"Within this program of rap, I'll eradicate the glitches
Yo I'm dark like Wesley, but I be sparkin more bitches
and to them my constellation put your lives in jep
While you others represent, I present my rep"

Elder statesmen that survived with new-jack mentality intact, De La will show you how it is like no one else. The next song, "The Bizness", features Common and his signature laid-back narrative. The methodic, pulsing beat fits all three MC's flows like a glove. Common's laconic wordplay and De La's lyrical mastery come together so fluidly that it doesn't sound like they are even trying. This is hip-hop so well engineered and thoughtful that the results are effortless. Peep Common fucking with his flow just for the fun of it:

"Peep game like a refa-
ree in sole control of my desti-
ny in in the best of
three out of five, whup ANYBODY'S ass at NBA Live"

"Wonce Again Long Island" profiles De La Soul's rise to popularity and how they deal with things like fame and money, while also repping the Strong Island they hail from. Who says literate rap can't pound the streets? Blunt drum kicks and a "Long Island, Long Island..." chant keep a neck snapping while your brain catches up. Funny, clever, and true like the gospel, just try and find a more articulate description of the evils that rap does than Posdnuos provides:

"When rap kids apply violent pressure to father, brother and son
For fun to say they inflict pain
R&B niggas lie to mother, sister and daughter
To have sex disguised as lovin' in the rain
Their words are more hallow than October thirty-first
What's worse
Hate to see the females switch to sexual mentality
It doesn't match with their given anatomy
Man, they'd rather be hoes like that male MC
Walk around like they got nuts
And use tits and ass as a crutch
Man the underground's about not being exposed
So better get that naked ass and put on some clothes"

"Dinninit" and "Dog Eat Dog" are both laid-back songs that mix the deep with the easy. The latter features a hook that sums up De La's position against those who continually deface hip-hop:

"I ain't got time for sittin' around
when you're fuckin' my love in all the wrong places"

"Betta Listen" takes a break from the 'industry shakedown' agenda to provide good dialogue on another kind of puzzling phenomena: women. Damn right you betta listen, there is some shit to be said on the topic. De La's not about to be so cautious about respecting women that they churn out a standard "every woman is a Goddess" sermon- they keep it real and keep it funny at the same time. Women know the score, there's no way around it. What's a serious MC on the prowl to do when confronted when quick-witted sisters spit like these?

"See all you niggas rappin' be like pedigree dogs
thinkin' you can have me leashed around you microphone cord"

Appropriate because of its truth, a nod to the horrible reality of domestic violence pops up in an otherwise fairly lighthearted song:

"Yo, where's your man?
'Oh, that nigga's past tense
painted bruises on my face
haven't seen him ever since.'"

A reminder that if things get sorted out and sex does in fact go down, safe is the way to be:

"Man, the flag was lowered
so my wood was raised
followed by a shielding of my building
to protect me from the blaze"

Plus the soul samples are tight as hell.

I could quote lines all day- every line truly is a "hip-hop quotable." "Itsoweezee" and "4 More" are both tight songs with more signature rhyme content. "Big Brother Beat" is absolutely crazy. Hottest beat on the album. Easy. Also, adding another contribution to the genre to this album's checklist, De La helps Mos Def get his shine on for the first time on a major record. Straight out of U.T.D. with his easy-natural flow, Mos sounds like De La's cool younger cousin. In '96, the introduction of Mos as the next promising member of the Native Tongues fold began a hype that surrounded Mos Def and all of his partners-in-rhyme. I'll go out on a limb and say if not for this guest spot, Black Star and the Rawkus label in general would not have enjoyed near as much instant cred as they got. An association with an album this good will do that for a career. Believe 'em when they say, "We are the killer combination with the size/ To administer a beatdown to swell up all three! of your eyes." The track with the same name as the album is second to last, and includes the most potent poison on the record. Pos and Dove are FED UP and let you know it. Fed up with hardcore attitudes and slick business trends:

(Dove) "I think that smiling in public is against the law
'Cause love don't get you through life no more
It's who you know and "How you, son?"
And how you gettin' in, and who the man holding
Hey yo, and how was the scams and how high
Yo what up, huh? I heard you caught a body
Seem like every man and woman shared a life with John Gotti"

Posdnuos offers no apologies while he speaks his mind on similar evils. He sees the same disintegration of hip-hop's core in the neighborhoods around him, and when you're the only one speaking the truth, that's called being a prophet. NO one can dispute the truth of these words:

"Yo, it's about love for cars, love for funds
Loving to love mad sex, loving to love guns
Love for opposite, love for fame and wealth
Love for the fact of no longer loving yourself, kid
We living in them days of the man-made ways
Where every aspect is vivid
these brothers no longer talk shit
Hey yo, these niggas live it
'Bout to give it to you 24/7 on the microphone
Plug One translating the zone
No offense to a player, but yo, I don't play
And if you take offense, fuck it, got to be that way
J.D. Dove, show your love, what you got to say?"

This track is the thesis of the album. Hip-hop this immediate and forceful is as true to the essence of music as anything can possible be. 180 degrees from anything stale, this song is a call for movement and change. It just sounds good to hear an intelligent vocalization of the way things are according to THE WAY THINGS ARE not according to "the way somebody else would like you to think they are." No sir, De La is not owned by anyone, and prove it time and time again with level-headed lines like these:

(Dove) "I'm sick of bitches shakin' asses
I'm sick of talkin' about blunts
Sick of Versace glasses
Sick of slang
Sick of half-ass awards shows
Sick of name brand clothes
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks
Cocaine and crack
Which brings sickness to blacks
Sick of swoll' head rappers
With their sicker-than raps
Clappers and gats
Makin' the whole sick world collapse"

The next song, "Sunshine", is a return to more playful styles. While "Stakes Is High" (the song) is as serious as anything can be, De La doesn't want to paint a picture with no hope. They leave it on a bouncy bassline and a good mood, leaving the message of the album in a place that's not entirely dark, but it sure isn't all roses. There are so many lines that I could fill pages with, and every beat on the album has to be heard to be described. "Brakes" reworks Kurtis Blow's classic with good results, "Down Syndrome" has Pos and Dove swapping verses like crazy, and so on and so on.

I hope it's clear that if you don't have this album, you need it yesterday. Picking a favorite De La Soul album is like picking a favorite Robert DeNiro movie, they're all good, but I'll make a push for this one. The most overriding tone on this record is awareness, and with that, De La puts a burden of responsibility concerning respect for music and respect for others on every person who listens to it. This album is a flat-out classic, no matter which way you slice it. No amount of content is lacking from any area of this thick, meaty slab of hip-hop. De La Soul- raw, rap power; outspoken yet understated. Feel it.

Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10

Originally posted: July 20, 2002