Stakes is High

Zev Borrow reviews De La Soul's fourth album "Stakes is High".

Published July 8, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

To cross over; It's a phrase with a biblical aura, and in music
industryspeak it alludes to a promised land, a land of milk and honey
where white audiences listen to "black music," and black artists get rich and get photographed for magazines. Everybody's happy. Unfortunately, the closest many whites ever come to such a place is in their cars, volume turned up, heads bobbing awkwardly to George Clinton, Prince or Public Enemy, while many black artists only come as near as a watered-down, pandering album or two. Still, the effort never stops. White audiences go on listening, black artists go on making music. And every once in a while, the two clasp hands and make it to the other side.

In the crossover pantheon, De La Soul is cordoned off by velvet ropes. In 1988, their first album, "Three Feet High and Rising," became one of hip-hop's seminal works, and was one of the first to attract an appreciative white audience. It introduced De La's signature blend of smooth, refined production, kaleidoscopic samples (everything from French jazz to Johnny Cash to Hall and Oates) and lyrics that meshed ghetto and hippie-like sensibilities with what could best be described as an urban magic realism. The New York Times labeled them the "hands down champs of thinking person's rap," and the album was bought by millions of collegiate
first-time rap listeners and urban hipsters alike.

However, the trio's next efforts were significant departures, and as a result received less attention. In 1991, "De La Soul Is Dead" won raves among rap devotees, but attracted a much smaller audience. "Buhloone Mindstate," their third album, released in 1993, drew even less attention from mainstream audiences in spite of live recorded sets and guest appearances by several notable rappers.

"Stakes is High" harks back to what many consider the glory years of the group's early work. Posdnuos, Dove, and Maseo (a.k.a Plugs 1, 2 and 3, respectively) have put together 17 tracks that combine the ear candy of "Three Feet High" and the harder sound of "De La Soul Is Dead." The beats, while at times sparse, are grounded by layers of bass and keen samples. Largely self-produced, it's the first De La album not guided by the sure hands of old-school hip-hop legend Prince Paul. His absence is audible in the less eclectic production, but an updated and more genuine energy takes
its place.

Lyrically, the group combines party-style playfulness with more complex and gritty philosophizing. Posdnuos and Co. have never been content with simple tales from the 'hood, and once again they nimbly tackle issues of race, gender (significantly fewer bitches and ho's inhabit De La's raps) and urban life. The title track, as well as the single "The Breaks," highlight what continues to be the group's greatest strength -- the ability to preach without judging, relying instead on intelligence and skillful rhyming. Other tracks, such as "Supa Emcees" and "Dog Eat Dog," showcase their traditionally sharp hip-hop sense. There are a number of other well-crafted songs on "Stakes is High," most notably "The Bizness," which includes a memorable guest appearance from Common (of Common Sense). Still,
many die-hard De La fans probably won't be satisfied by "Stakes," if only because what's offered is not a mirror image of their De La memories.

By Zev Borrow

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