De La Soul - Buhloone Mindstate
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
For those Americans suspicious of hip-hop, De La Soul offers a refreshing alternative. The trio—composed of Posdonus, Trugoy the Dove, and Mase—compose raps distinguished by their avoidance of both gangsta bluster and the shall we say problematic view of women which often gets Ludacris and Jay Z in trouble (you can imagine Bill O’Reilly giving De La a hesitant thumbs-up). Their humor is zany when not impenetrable, hermetic in all the ways that count for Low fans (that is, if Low fans know how to laugh).
But it’s De La Soul’s early music that made them standouts: an outré mélange of George Clinton, Steely Dan, and Hall & Oates samples anchored by a propulsive beat just short of galvanic. Their producer Prince Paul deserves most of the credit; his sensibility merged with De La Soul’s as seamlessly as other fruitful artist-producer relationships like Talking Heads-Eno or Public Enemy-Bomb Squad. It’s difficult to overestimate how relatively different De La Soul sounded 18 years ago. Their commitment to whimsy confused the hip-hop world, which then and now trades on suspect notions of authenticity—an illness that still enfeebles even the best rock and roll.
Upon the release of 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, De La Soul found themselves in a most perplexing position. It was no longer a question of being too different; now De La faced a marketplace in which their disciples briskly outsold them using their bag of tricks. Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip had made a notable appearance on 3 Feet High & Rising’s “Buddy”) scored their biggest hits integrating the jazz samples that gave Buhloone Mindstate much of its buoyancy. But there were differences. Where Tribe and Digable Planets attempted to define themselves as the heirs to a rich musical legacy, De La’s efforts emitted a faint air of dilettantism. This is not to say that the sound collages on 3 Feet High and De La Soul is Dead didn’t adduce the band’s unusually diverse record collection; but those records didn’t give saxophonist Maceo Parker space to solo, or devote a whole track showcasing raps by Posdonus and Mase as convoluted as the Milt Jackson bar anchoring it. Artists often confuse opacity with formal density. Lines like “The seeds of a natural / Are seeds that are no longer planted / So the famine in the mind is strong” (on the otherwise terrific “I Am I Be”) sound better than they scan.
“It might blow up, but it won’t go pop,” Mase boasts with a hint of defensiveness on “Pattie Dooke,” and for a third of Buhloone Mindstate you’re inclined to agree with him. “Eye Patch and “En Focus” are charming if unmemorable warm-ups for the trio of jazz-education numbers which follow. Points for trying, of course, but I wish the juxtapositions were fraught with more tension: a weird conclusion, considering that De La Soul is perhaps the most relaxed of hip-hop acts (or lazy, if you’re feeling nasty). The album doesn’t really get going until “Ego Trippin’,” on which Posdonus does his ego trippin’ on terra firma, where it belongs. But when he declares, “I’m the greatest MC in the world!” it’s his giddiness talking, not his ego. Elevating the joy of rhyming for its own sake into a world-historic truth is perhaps De La Soul’s greatest contribution to music.
The rest of Buhloone Mindstate is superfly. “In the Woods” features the aptly named Shorty, a female rapper whose talents are as prodigious as Digable Planets’ Ladybug (and who has also vanished into oblivion); she’s like Roxanne Shante sired by Dr. Seuss, especially when she confides, “I got much soul on the down-low tip.” Smokey Robinson arabesques blow through the airy shuffle of “Breakadawn,” the album’s closest thing to a hit single. Biz Markie injects some welcome smut into “Stone Age,” which I’d call a repudiation of 3 Feet High & Rising’s Daisy Age if De La hadn’t already devoted …is Dead to that touching if misguided notion.
Still, repudiation of a sort did follow. Not until 2004’s superb The Grind Date did De La Soul return to the rococo structures of their youth, despite the indifference with which Buhloone Mindstate and its follow-ups were received beyond the group’s fervent cult. I was as happy as anyone when Gorillaz’s “Feel Good, Inc.” became their first top 40 hit since 1989’s “Me, Myself, and I,” but it was discomfiting to realize that their memorable cameo had little value beyond its eccentricity—misplaced rappers on a squelchy mid-tempo guitar groove. Once master samplers, De La Soul have been cannibalized themselves. They didn’t blow up, but they did go pop after all.