Groups go through all sorts of interesting progressions after close to 30 years of making music. For De La Soul, it’s been even more interesting. They have made a career on going to the left of expectations, yet still connecting with their audience. With their latest album and the Anonymous Nobody... (anywhere from their ninth to their eleventh or possibly twelfth, depending on how you’re counting), the iconic Long Island trio deliver a sometimes mellow, sometimes meditative, and often moving return that salutes their longtime fans and demonstrates that their outsider spirit is still intact.
It’s impossible to review this album without writing about how it got made. The process began on Feb. 13, 2014, when De La announced that they were going to make the vast majority of their catalogue available for free download via their website for 25 hours. Due to various sample clearance issues and contractual complications, much of their catalog was (and still is) unavailable on iTunes and various streaming services. The move allowed the group to reconnect with their core fanbase and introduce them to a whole generation of listeners whose parents hadn’t even met when De La were fresh on the scene.
The process continued a little over a year later, when De La launched a Kickstarter campaign, which sought to collect $110,000 in donations to fund the completion of a new album. They spoke of an album full of beats made my “sampling themselves.” Plugs One, Two, and Three had put together a live band, recorded hours of jam sessions, and sampled the best material that came from them.
The fundraising effort was a smashing success, as the group met its goal in less than 24 hours, and ended up raising over $600,000 by the time it ended. De La took the extra funding and promptly pumped it back into the album, booking extra studio time and enlisting additional collaborators. There were often maddening delays for the album’s release, but the crew strived to maintain goodwill, dropping a holdover EP and previewing tracks from the project. With that much prelude and build-up, there was tremendous pressure for the group to deliver. With this album, De La successfully rises to the occasion.
It’s striking how well the album works as a whole. Lyrically, Posdnuos and Dave have not lost a step, and are able to showcase their skills over a variety of musical styles. The album flows effortlessly from track to track. The “sampling themselves” approach pays off, from the obvious regality of “Royalty Capes” to the bouncy soulful grooves of “Pain” (featuring Snoop Dogg) to tempo shifts of the David Byrne collaboration “Snoopies” to the straight-up p-funk displayed on “Nosed Up.” And even with the abundance of different musical styles, the tracks transition effortlessly throughout the album.
Lyrically, and the Anonymous Nobody... is among De La’s best albums. Pos and Dave continue to grow as MCs, and continue to be as adept at creating complex pictures with their rhymes. De La has never shied away from being heartfelt, and that’s the creative space where much of and the Anonymous Nobody... lives and excels. One of the album’s best songs is “Greyhounds,” a contemplative track where Pos and Dave, assisted by Usher, tell separate tales of starry-eyed youths being chewed up and spit out by the glitzy and drug-infused culture of New York City. Over a sparse keyboard and drum kicks, Pos raps, “Road, destination unknown / She’s Little Bo-Peep and her and her whole sheep gonna have her wool on the song / Now the wolf give a push…”
De La still crafts excellent hip-hop jams as well. “CBGBS” may be the album’s best jam. The slapping drums, thumping bass, and trippy vocal samples filter in and out, while Pos and Dave pass the mic back and forth. It feels at peace with any of De La’s ‘90s output. It’s a shame that it’s only a minute and a third long. “Whoodeeni,” a groovy old school tribute, is another of the album’s high points. Plug One and Two are in top form, but 2 Chainz’ verse steals the show: “Had ‘em all strung out / Like it’s a drug house / When I’m in the booth I’m like MJ with his tongue out / When I’m in the booth I’m Kanye with a gun out.”
The album’s sole misstep is hard rock-influenced “Lord Intended,” which is overlong, over-cooked, and over-dramatic. The collaboration with The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins is a musical miss, long over-staying its welcome by clocking in at over 7 minutes, but feeling like twice that. By the time the track reaches its protracted 3-minute long dénouement, complete with Hawkins’ repeated warbling of “Fuck everyone! Burn everything!,” it’s long past time for something new.
“Drawn” almost functions as a Little Dragon solo track, but features a stunning closing verse by Pos bringing it home: “Eye on the prize instead of gas prices / Lyrically, Wonduh Why travels past the nicest / Born of a generation that don’t generate patience / Travel too fast for you to clock me.” He also laments how the grind of touring has cost him serious relationships.
“Here in the After,” which features lengthy contributions from Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, serves as the album’s explanation point and summation of their career to this point. Dave leads off the track with a verse celebrating the group’s perseverance: “Had y'all on my mind all week, I missed the last / They say a better tomorrow is to sacrifice the calf / Keep that cow in the pasture, knife in the drawer / It's been a long 40 days, it's gonna take 40 more.”
and the Anonymous Nobody... doesn’t sound like any other De La album, but it is an unmistakably De La album in every way possible. It’s unmistakably different from much of what’s on the market, but embodies the depth and maturity in spirit that De La fans are accustomed to. And for the many “investors” that contributed money to ensure that this album was completed, De La demonstrates that their money was well spent.
Notable Tracks: “CBGB’s” | “Greyhounds” | “Here in After” | “Nosed Up” | “Whoodeeni”