Here’s my true confession, offered with more shame than usual: much of hip hop resides in my musical blind spot, or deaf spot, I suppose. I tried and tried when I was in college radio, as a slew of formative acts in the genre released seminal albums. Time and again, I was left cold, maybe admiring the material intellectually, but never holding it to my rebellious heart the way I did punk or even, in the words on Kathleen Hanna, “the whole, like, big-white-baby-with-an-ego-problem thing” form of alternative rock that took hold at about the same time. Back in those days, there was one act that operated with an artistry that I couldn’t turn away from, that I couldn’t shake. That was De La Soul.
There was something immediately iconoclastic about the Long Island trio (Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo) that distinguished them from everyone else. I know there were plenty of other trailblazers at the time, but De La Soul seemed like the only act that wasn’t following anyone, even as they deployed samples to a degree that has left much of their back catalog almost impossible to properly release as copyright laws have tightened up. It was that label reticence that led the act to briefly distribute their earliest albums for free online, to the chagrin of their former music biz overlords. That act of musical sharing — perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not — gave De La Soul a list of potential supporters that they leveraged into a Kickstarter campaign which resulted in and the Anonymous Nobody, the group’s first album in twelve years.
The album opens with “Genesis,” effectively a spoken word piece by Jill Scott that is delivered over a heavily orchestral, jazz-influenced music bed, making it sound like an interstitial scene from some great lost Spike Lee film. This is a signal that the album will play completely and unapologetically by the De La Soul’s unique set of rules, prioritizing drama and unpredictability. Single “Pain,” featuring Snoop Dogg, has a devilishly rubbery undercurrent with a funk loll that sounds like the Soul Train has decided to just chill out and take its time getting to an unspecified destination. “Snoopies” invites David Byrne to participate. Even though the former Talking Head isn’t a credited songwriter, the track gives him a perfect platform for his patented triumphal, spiritually downbeat destitution (“In a hundred years from now/ We will not recognize this place/ The dollar store is filled with love/ The parking lot is full of grace”). “Trainweck” sounds like a sentient cowbell scoring a languid debate between the generations about the perils and pleasures of finding the right romantic partner, and “Here in After,” featuring Damon Albarn (who De La Soul have collaborated in with in Gorillaz) sounds like nothing less than pop retrieved from the distant future and thoughtfully reconfigured for modern ears.
All of the above descriptions should suggest that the album can go anywhere at anytime, without warning or any overt stabs at justification. And that’s as it should be. As I noted, I committed to De La Soul back in the day, but I’ll admit I didn’t exactly get them at first. Their landmark debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, sat in my college radio Program Director office for weeks. I took it into our production studio every once in a while and listened anew, baffled as to whether or not it could have a home on our relatively genteel station. (I’m happier to report that their sophomore album, De La Soul is Dead, went straight into rotation, and I played “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday” like there was a legal requirement compelling me to do so.) To me, there’s maybe nothing more satisfying about and the Anonymous Nobody than the fact that is leaves me invigorated, exhausted, and, yes, again perplexed, all at the same time. From De La Soul, I would want, and expect, nothing less.