If you could put a jigsaw puzzle together in such a way that a completely different picture appeared, you’d have an idea about De La Soul’s originality, about how the trailblazing trio turned standard rap elements into something totally unique. Humorous without being too goofy, libidinous without being sexist, and sociopolitically aware while steering clear of any doctrinaire posturing, these three young Long Islanders — Posdnous (Kelvyn Mercer), Trugoy the Dove (David Jolicoeur) and P.A. Pasemaster Mase (Vincent Mason) crossed a number of musical boundaries on their debut album, ingeniously produced by the studio architect of the D.A.I.S.Y. age (“DA Inner Sound, Y’all”), Prince Paul of Stetsasonic. With dayglo graphics, spacey, laid-back attitudes and psychedelic grooves, the album is a musical canvas on which a French language instruction record, Otis Redding, Steely Dan, P-Funk and the Turtles (who, in a landmark case, sued over the use of “You Showed Me” on “Transmitting Live From Mars”) could intermingle and blend into highly textured soundscapes. Where other bands use samples as rhythmic backdrops or musical exclamation points, De La Soul (members, along with A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, of the Native Tongues alternative hip-hop family) made a rap album you can hum. Their groove (anyone who doubts the group’s ability to lay down a compelling groove via such oblique strategies need only hear the hit “Me Myself and I”) is leavened by an unselfconsciously goofy, surreal sense of humor, not unlike George Clinton’s. With over 20 tracks, it’s easy to find highlights on 3 Feet High and Rising. For giggles, try “Jenifa Taught Me” or “Do as De La Does”; the former takes the surprising position of a man being sexually victimized by a smarter, more experienced woman, while the latter lambastes everything about hip-hop’s language and performance styles in just under two minutes.
The Me Myself and I 12-inch contains four versions of the the title cut: two instrumentals, the original LP track and a drastically different beat-heavy mix with enough samples replaced to give it a completely new feel and melody. The three other tracks are all great, with messages dissing clichéd hip-hop lingo, violence, drugs and status symbols.
On De La Soul Is Dead, as on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, the band’s ambition outstrips its ideas. The feeble, forced skits that dot the album fall flat, and many of the songs can be heard as a reaction to criticism that De La Soul was soft. Unlike “Do as De La Does” (from 3 Feet High and Rising), where the group puts itself in a leadership position, songs like “Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)” and “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” hew closer to rap convention, with harder-edged lyrics and sound. The album’s not bad, but it lacks some of the qualities that made the debut unique.
Superficially, Buhlööne Mind State is a return to form. While it does resemble the first album, there’s a pro forma air to the proceedings that even guests like Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker can’t allay; the sound is in the house, but the trio’s once-profound inspiration has fled.