It’s almost protocol to begin any appraisal of De La Soul by referring back to the commercial heyday of when him, themselves and they first struck hip-hop platinum back in the halcyon days of 1989. Though Pos, Dave, and Maseo have spun enough rhymes in the 15 years since, few mainstream chart compilers have their workload stretched by the trio’s output over the last ten years.
Maybe Pos is right about what “all them books/That say/Native Tongues make songs/with no hooks” (Come On Down), but The Grind Date is as fresh for ’04 as it would have been for ’88. Without resorting to self-parody, De La Soul are still the intellectual whoopee-cushion under the self-aggrandising phat ass of hip-hop.
Perhaps the key to the band’s success is that, unlike Jenny, De La Soul are still believably from the block. A ‘street philosophy’ that doesn’t pander to the gangsta fantasies of nice suburban boys ‘n’ girls, informs the deepest rhymes on The Grind Date. De La Soul are band that have never had a problem with that tricky style/content axis. When the duo rap that they “grew up in a blue-collar life/With white-collar dreams”, and advise “If you need five cents/Don’t ask for three/You ask for 10” there’s no lack of ambition, it’s just that unlike some, they wouldn’t die tryin’ just to get rich.
Of course, it ain’t all a hard knock life, and De La are just as playful as they’ve ever been. Both No and Much More belong on the same ultimate good times tape of De La classics as Roller Skating Jam and Eye Know. And just when you think they’re all getting all soul-searching and spiritual, you’re never far from a non-sequiter. De La get all Earth Song sincere on The Future, “singing for the children”, but sign-off with a muttered “little brats”. These Days takes up the damascene theme too, but just can’t resist the dee-lite of verbal jousting: “I travelled the maze/like Frankie Beverley/To the East/Looking For Pieces/Of a better me”.
Mixing and matching producers from Supa Dave West, J-Dilla, and Madlib, The Grind Date has a tight sound, that despite all the digital samples, fleshes out with volume. Despite using multiple knob-twiddlers, this record keeps faith throughout with the band’s love of melody. The Grind Date itself features a circling loop courtesy of Yes (Yes? Yes indeed). It’s an oxymoronic success, but beware mortals, we may be witnessing the birth of Prog-Hop.
If there is a criticism of The Grind Date, its that its unlikely to spread the De La word back to the must buy lists of any outside the established fanbase, and tracks like Church and Rock Co. Kane Flow make this collection two tracks too long, Shoomp, recorded with the ubiquitous Sean Paul, is a bonus track for Europe only. Gee, Uncle Sam must really hate us after all.
Still, The Grind Date is De La Soul on form, and still crazy after all these years. And one final thought. With Rick Wakeman, the King Arthur of the Keyboard, credited twice on this record, maybe the De La crew can rap on ice for their next tour? You heard it here first.