No hip-hop album since perhaps L.L. Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out or De la Soul’s first outing has arrived so sonically crafted by personality and musicianship as De la Soul Is Dead. Knee-deep in hooks and rhythmic reversals that play like a history of pop experimentalism (a kazoo whining the opening riff to the Jackson 5’s “Dancing Machine,” nursery rhymes underneath a celebration of black macho), De la Soul Is Dead avoids the usual sophomore slump; these three guys have skipped right up to a case of senioritis, coming off like fidgety, ambitious salutatorians rather than the focused valedictorians they could likely become. Crammed full of startlingly inventive samples and an intelligent, well-spoken defensiveness bred in the onrush of sudden fame and fortune, De la Soul Is Dead confirms first that 3 Feet High and Rising was no fluke and second that these guys are true hip-hop scholars, redefining in jam after jam (with the help of producer Prince Paul) how we listen to, dance to, live with and abide by hip-hop.
Framed by a number of “skits” depicting a schoolyard debate over the merits of De la Soul — “This is so corny. What are they saying?” — the record revels in hip-hop’s eternal commitment to the “street” and finds a warranted and sensitive rap authenticity. The best cuts on De la Soul Is Dead — “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'” (built on samples of Chic, Chicago and the title cut from the film Grease), “Talkin’ Bout Hey Love” (a reconstructed power-pop ode) and “Bitties in the BK Lounge” (with a mean game of cross-gender dozens) — resurrect love-jones clichés while methodically (and melodically) mining the grooves with assorted female voices that constantly show up the males. By the last “skit” — “What happened to the pimps? What happened to the guns? That’s what rap music is all about, right?” — De la Soul has again rewritten the rules of hip-hop styling, this time across the vista of sexual politics. And “Afro Connections at a Hi 5” — in which the crew does an on-target send-up of “all those hardcore acts … that fell the fuck off” — skewers the boys who “smack a fish if she thinks my connection ain’t thick.”
The tour de force on the album, however, is “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” a meditative narrative about a friend sexually abused by her popular, Santa-playing father. Loping along a jazz-piano riff, piling up detail after innocent detail (“He’s your father…. What happened, did he ground you?” “Child, you got the best pops anyone could have/Dylan’s cool, superhip, you should be glad”), the song becomes an achievement of youthful observation, summoning its power through the subtle use of metaphor rather than an obtrusive, this-is-how-things-are coarseness.
Amid constant talk of hip-hop’s death, De la Soul has managed a breathtaking combination of sonic and verbal beauty, challenging the listener with an unruly, seemingly effortless hip-hop masterpiece.