Remember how in 1991, De La Soul
infamously declared themselves "dead?"
Well, 15 years later, that thankfully isn't the case: This Friday, the Hip-Hop legends are set to release their ninth studio album, and first record in four years, and the Anonymous Nobody...
. While yes, any new De La record is automatically a big freaking deal, this one is particularly huge because it's the group's first completely crowd-funded record via Kickstarter. In 2015, the group started a 33-day campaign to raise $110,000 for the new album, which they hoped to produce and release independently. They reached $110k in less than a day, and by the time they hit day 33, they had about $600,000 to work with. After lots of hard work and much anticipation, the group is finally ready to show their fans and funders what they've been working on, and on Tuesday night, a lucky handful of people, myself included (#humblebrag), were invited to a listening party for Anonymous Nobody
ahead of its release.
The event took place at the brand-new Sonos store in SoHo, the flagship location for the high-end wifi speaker company. Aside from the giant portrait of Rick Rubin finding inner peace near the entrance, the store is sleek, uniform, and futuristic, like an Apple Store but with a lot less glass walls. The coolest feature in the store by far were the "listening rooms," which were small, enclosed spaces meant for showing off the various types of speakers. I honestly thought the place was specifically used for listening parties before I realized it was an actual store, because the listening rooms seemed too perfect for just sitting down and listening to music for hours on end. The store had the album going through the main speakers for the people who preferred having background music while they socialized, but the five listening rooms each had the album playing as well for those who wanted to really dig into the new material.
Being that I was listening to De La's new record under pretty unique circumstances, I didn't get to go through the album a few times through and collect my thoughts like I usually do on album reviews, instead scribbling as many notes as fast as I could for each song in real time. That said, the 17 tracks I listened to left one hell of a first impression. It's clear that almost three decades into their career, De La Soul has still got plenty of energy, creativity, and a whole lotta flow. Anonymous Nobody
definitely plays like an old-school Hip-Hop record, but unlike some of their contemporaries, De La have updated their sound just enough to prevent it from sounding dated. The record still has the campiness and cinematic elements the group is known for, but that old sound is incorporated with new influences and modern artistic styles, creating something completely different and more adventurous than the majority of new releases this year. The album kicked off with "Royalty Capes," a track reminiscent of the spoken-word "hello and welcome" intros of the groups' earlier albums, except with a much greater sense of grandiose and regality to it.
There were also of course the already-released singles "Pain," probably the most straight-up old-school Hip-Hop tune featuring some verses from Snoop Dogg
, "Trainwreck," a bass-heavy track that rides along until it lives up to its name and crashes in an epic fashion, and "Greyhounds," perhaps the most radio-ready track on the album thanks to a strong vocal performance by Usher
, that were particular highlights. Luckily, this record is so much more than its singles, as the unreleased songs packed plenty of surprises, solid beats, and really impressive rhymes as well. "Nosed Up" offers a jazz-influenced beat that will probably make Native Tongues
followers very happy, "CBGBS" is a prime example that the group can still bust out some unstoppable verses if the time calls for it, and "Memory Of" shows off some lush string arrangements that compliment the vintage drum machine pattern very well.
As De La's music has always been a little offbeat compared to other popular artists, the album doesn't shy away from venturing into some strange territory. "You Go Dave (A Goldblatt Presentation)" was literally a cheesy insurance-type ad for the very album its on. Featuring an upstanding family man named Dave who can now "nae nae" thanks to the Anonymous Nobody
, it's a pretty comical interlude in an already fun record, and shows that De La aren't taking themselves too seriously even with their legendary status. The record reached maximum camp on the song "Untold," a near 5-minute track that sounds like a Spaghetti Western cartoon that hasn't been animated yet. The song kicks off with a fairly stereotypical Western crooner singing about cowboys, bank robberies, and a shootout at high noon, and the song boasts enough characters and sound effects to pass off as an audio book rather than a rap song. This song was so strange and offbeat that I was waiting for Jack Black or "Weird Al" Yankovic to make a cameo, but that sadly never happened. The track felt like a bit of an outlier, which is saying something considering the entire album is pretty unconventional, and while I thought it was an amusing enough song, it might be a little hit-or-miss for some people. However, that sense of "why not?" and trying out new ideas and concepts is one of the things that makes this album so great and enjoyable to listen to. This is not the sound of veteran artists resting on their laurels; the album sounds like three artists unafraid to take risks and making the music they want to make. In the Q&A held after the listening, De La members Dave and Posdnous talked about how by crowd-funding the record, they didn't have the feeling of "having to share artistic value with someone else," and that creative freedom really helps the record stand out, and might by the group's most realized work to date.
The pair also talked about how they have learned to not be stuck in the past and embrace new artists, genres, and influences, all of which is apparent from the album's eclectic list of guests. By bringing on all sorts of artists, who range from current hit-makers to legends in their own right, the album has incredible diversity you never see on not just hip-hop albums, but on music albums in general. And these guest appearances aren't just a verse or a vocal hook; more often than not, De La let the artists take the reigns on the song while they just sit back and enjoy the ride. The lush and intricate "Drawn" is more or less a Little Dragon
song until the last minute, and "Here in After," featuring Damon Alburn
, would fit just as well, if not better, on a Gorillaz
album as it does on this album (Side note: Where's that new Gorillaz record, Alburn!?!).
"Whoodeeni," a big highlight on the record, reminds us all that 2 Chainz
can actually rap, and shows how De La aren't quick to dismiss artists from genres such as Trap like some from their era have. Possibly the biggest surprise guests (De La themselves were even surprised about this one) was David Byrne
of Talking Heads
, who takes the lead on the track "Snoopies." It's one of the stranger and more disjointed tracks on the album, with Byrne's vocal part and De La's rap verses almost sounding like two completely separate songs, but it still works and is an interesting creative exercise between two heavyweights of their respective genres. This album probably would've still been pretty good if it was just De La doing their thing, but it becomes so much more memorable and unique because of the group's willingness to give their guests the spotlight. It's also nice to see that the group's collective ego isn't too inflated to feel threatened by these "young and hip" artists. De La know they've proved their worth to people, and now they're just having fun making music for the love of it.
I wanted to play the record all over again once I had finished it, but sadly, I'll have to wait until Friday to do that. For those still waiting to hear the record, I'm happy to say ...and the Anonymous Nobody
is definitely one of my favorite releases of 2016, and might rank as one of De La Soul's best. It has plenty of old styles, new influences, awesome guest contributions, and unexpected moments to make new fans interested and old fans very, very happy. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: Hip-Hop royalty has returned.