Entering their 16th year and 7th album of their career, heads may joke and call them “De La Old”, but for Pos, Dave, and Maseo, it’s just another day at the office. The philosophy of Buhloone Mind State was “we might blow up, but we won’t go pop”, yet when they didn’t blow up, the collective’s frustration spawned perhaps the most important album of 1996, Stakes Is High, an album that examined the problems plaguing hip-hop music. However, after being indirectly lampooned by Bad Boy as “mad rappers” and the emergence of “hater players”, De La Soul almost had no choice but to make their last two Tommy Boy records, AOI: Mosaic Thump and AOI: Bionix, a little more radio friendly than usual. While the AOI series was still De La Soul at its core, its more commercial edge didn’t go over as well with longtime fans of the crew. The crew remained criminally slept on once again, resulting in the third disc in the series to be cancelled, and De La being released from their longtime contract with Tommy Boy. The Grind Date, however, marks the beginning of a new era for De La Soul, now under BMG upstart imprint, Sanctuary Records, headed up by Beyonce’s dad, Matthew Knowles.
The concept of The Grind Date is pretty much broken down to the fact that De La Soul takes this rap shit seriously, and at this point in their career, there’s no room for mistakes or half-assed songs. This is it - this is what they do for a living, this is what puts food on their families’ tables. With that said, The Grind Date puts the “Soul” back into De La, with a return to raw production, soulful samples, and conceptual song structure. The concurrent theme running throughout the album is simple - De La finds wealth not in material things, but in a strong family.
Fortunately, De La’s sermons aren’t diluted by poor musical backdrops, making them worthwhile to listen to. In fact, despite the fact that Prince Paul is now a page in the De La history books, they’ve still managed to assemble a strong team of this generation’s producers to make The Grind Date sound hot. J. Dilla delivers two excellent tracks, the first taking form on the hard-hitting throwback “Verbal Clap”, as the duo suggests to today’s emcees to put the guns and jewels aside and bring their skills to the battle. Again on “Much More”, an uplifting anthem that defines wealth outside of what is seen at surface value. Meanwhile, the other half of the Jaylib duo also brings two tracks, as Madlib delivers “Shopping Bags” and “Come On Down” (feat. Flava Flav), respectively. Madlib outdoes himself on “Shopping Bags”, with his usual raw-as-war production quality, meshed with contradictory jiggy drum patterns with outstanding results, as De La questions the differences between the golddigger and a strong, loyal woman. 9th Wonder chimes in for “Church”, utilizing his trademark style for the album’s most preachy song, while Jake One adds another strong track to his growing resume with “Rock Ko. Cane Flow”. Here, De La teams up with none other than M.F. Doom, as the three amazingly keep up with Jake’s varying tempo piano keys.
But among all of these high profile producers is in fact a new star, one that shines brighter than ever, Supa Dave West. While he was the primary production force on the AOI: Bionix LP, The Grind Date marks his graduation from rookie to certified “hot producer”. Dave West fills in all the blanks, so to speak, producing the rest of the album, at times even outshining the bigger names. West’s sample driven concoctions help revisit the art of sampling in 2004, as he does on the opener, “The Future”, the retro-souled out “He Comes” (feat. Ghostface), or the wonderfully chopped “Days Of Our Lives” (feat. Common). Of course, who can forget the title track, which freaks a Yes sample to death, as De La Soul and Bonz Malone get their grind on. Sew this all together and you’ve got a superb De La Soul album.
Complaints are few and far between, and usually are the fault of the newcomers, rather than De La themselves. Yummy’s crackled crooning hinders both “Much More” and “No”, while “No” also suffers from the rookie rap stylings of Butter Verses, who’s no Shorty No Mas. And despite the fact that “It’s Like That” suffers from the cursed “triangle snare” made famous by Puff in the late 90′s, we also have to put up with Carl Thomas’ syrupy hook. But in the end, it’s really not that bad of a track.
All in all, respect is due to De La Soul, even if today’s generation (or any generation, for that matter) refuses to give it to them. While heads may argue that De La is past their prime, the fact remains, these guys helped give birth to the abstract lyricism found in today’s backpack rap, so recognize, youngsters. The Grind Date is the trio’s most mature effort to date, and a return to form. Props due to hip-hop’s own working class heroes.
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