They may not have the record sales of OutKast, the critical respect of their Native Tongue partners A Tribe Called Quest, or the influence of Public Enemy or Run-DMC, but would it be unfair to list De La Soul as one of the five best groups in hip-hop history? It’s been 23 years since 3 Feet High And Rising hit the scene. Since that time, they’ve been trying to live up to the commercial and critical respect that release garnered-much like Nas with Illmatic. Unlike Nas, though, they’ve done a good job consistently living up to (and if you ask me, exceeding) the potential they set with their debut. There isn’t a bad or even average album in De La’s catalog.
Pos, Dave and Mase have been absent from the album recording scene for a while, with their last full-length studio album being 2004’s excellent Grind Date. Although this hiatus from recording is unusual, they’ve still been pretty active, particularly as a touring unit. They also won a long-deserved Grammy Award for their collaboration with Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.” While Plug 1 and Plug 2 Present First Serve isn’t exactly a new De La album, it’s the closest thing to it that there’s been in quite some time, and it’s worth giving a listen even if you don’t understand the concept behind it.
In a nutshell, Pos (Plug One) and Dave (Plug Two) are in character as Jacob (Pop Life) Barrow and Deen Whitter-a rap group called First Serve. The narrative arc is fairly simple-they start out as friends wanting to be put on in the rap game, make it big, have a conflict, their relationship is threatened, and then they finally resolve the conflict. Wow-that was simpler to explain than I thought it would be. Everything I’ve read about First Serve has compared it to A Prince Among Thieves, the concept album by De La’s longtime producer Prince Paul (I’d also compare it to one of Paul’s Handsome Boy Modeling School albums, minus the extensive guest lists of those projects,) and while there are similarities, they’re not exact matches.
One thing to note is that Pos & Dave have grown immeasurably as emcees since their debut. Take a listen to the rudimentary rhyme schemes on 3 Feet, listen to the two trading off rapid-fire verses today and marvel at the improvement. Another thing to note is that the production on the album (provided by French producers Chokolate and Khalid) is way shinier/cleaner than on previous albums. It might be a little jarring to hear Plugs 1 and 2 rhyming over a harmonica-led blues-rock beat on “The Book Of Life,” but you’ll get used to it—and appreciate the lyricism.
One thing that has not changed over the years is De La’s offbeat sense of humor. The sense of wit that has been evident for almost a quarter century is still a De La Soul album’s saving grace, and First Serve is no exception. The members play different characters throughout the album (although the best performance might be from Dave/Deen as his own mom on track one) and pop culture references still abound, with my favorite being a Puff Daddy “Victory” rip on “Clash Symphony.”
While I’m not as crazy about First Serve as I am about the average De La Soul album, that’s not to say it isn’t worth listening to or even owning. Despite the fact that it isn’t a proper De La Soul album (and allegedly one, with Maseo in tow, is expected to be released soon) it still contains more intricate wordplay, songcraft and wit than your average hip-hop album, and that’s certainly worth something.