Artist: De La SoulTitle: The Grind DateRating: 4 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Orisanmi Burton
“We are the past, We are the present, We are the future”. As the opening mantra of De La Soul’s latest album suggests, group members Posdnuos, Dave (Trugoy) and Maceo have conjured up another batch of those “true-school” beats and rhymes with The Grind Date (AOI/Sanctuary). In this erratic industry, where longevity should be measured in dog years, the trio has somehow managed to continuously raise the bar for lyricism and originality throughout their 15-year career. Arguably the quintessential alternative rap group, De La is the lone remnant from the Native Tongues crew to stay intact, and at the top of their game. After being dropped from their long time label Tommy Boy, they have found a new home at Mathew Knowles’ Sanctuary Records. With an eclectic “who’s who” of guest appearances including Spike Lee, Flava Flav, Carl Thomas, Ghostface, Common, MF Doom and Bonz Malone as the album’s street scholar and narrator, this one will definitely enthrall old fans and enlist some new recruits
The Grind Date is De La Soul’s best effort since, Stakes is High. It captures a sense of urgency regarding the dismal state of mainstream Hip-Hop, without sounding too idealistic or preachy. On tracks like “It’s Like That” and “No” they come off like Hip-Hop’s collective conscience, reminding us of what the game was like before it “blew up and went pop”. The group’s seventh offering may be their most “conventional” album to date. The skit-free, twelve-track composition is sonically less adventurous than some of their previous works like 3 Feet High & Rising or Buhloone Mindstate. Instead, the solid production from Dave West, J-Dilla, Madlib, Jake One and 9th Wonder create a “boom bap” canvas on which Pos and Dave paint oratorical portraits, showcasing their trademark cleverness and wit.
With hordes of inspiration provided by the legions of studio gangstas on the Billboard charts, the album has quite a few highlights. The crew’s unmatched ability to invert lyrical cliché’s is present throughout the album as evidenced by the 9th Wonder produced “Church” where Posdnous states “It’s not always good just to get by / who’s covering your stakes when you bet high”. The track concludes with a minute long gospel chorus, continuing Hip-Hop’s recent love affair with the Holy Spirit. On “Verbal Clap” J-Dilla concocts a beat that manages to sound old school and futuristic at the same time, throwing ominous synthesizers over the timeless “Big Beat” break. “Verbal Clap” lives up to its name when Dave drops lines like “We run mics/ let Sean run the marathon/ yo raise that money son we raising these kids”. On “Day’s Of Our Lives” De La and Common display their microphone chemistry yet again as they trade potent and personal lines about life as an MC. They take turns reciting the hook “watch the problems of the world go by like balloons / if tomorrow comes today it might be too soon” while underrated producer, Jake One flexes his muscles behind the boards.
At a time when any cat with the right marketing scheme and a bit of luck can become the next rap superstar, The Grind Date is evidence that longevity and respect come from hard work and dedication, not from following trends. By remaining consistent and never compromising their artistic integrity throughout the years, De La Soul has maintained their loyal fan base. The group has always been decidedly “un-gangsta” and has influenced a generation of artists and fans without ever invoking the typical imagery of street-corner shootouts and drug transactions gone awry. For this, they have been acknowledged, and will soon be teaching a course on Hip-Hop at New York University. But for now they do the schooling on wax.