To my ears, De La Soul’s fourth 1996 album Stakes Is High is largely disappointing; the Â music is simply bland1 compared to the group’s prior releases; the sense of humor that shined under Prince Paul’s tutelage is sorely missed; it is a chore to sit through it in its entirety. With that said, the aspect of the album that I find most fascinating —its treatment of the group member’s collective and individual anxieties over the prospect of downward mobility— is seldom brought up in reviews. Critics and opinionated listeners alike characterize Stakes as work that is singularly focused on criticizing2 Â rap music industry trends, in particular the rise of rappers that glorify criminality and materialism at the expense of creativity and enlightenment. Though popular and damned near canonical, this interpretation is glib at best.
NYC metropolitan area rappers born circa 1970 who entered show business in the mid or late 80s are never simply rapping about industry trends or lyrical matters when criticizing the genre as a whole. This cohort of rappers tends to conflate the life of the individual with the progress of the collective.3 It is presumed that the relative health of the rap scene —whether or not the genre is artistically generative, socially conscious, and untainted by commerce— is a valid indicator of the viability of the individual’s artistic expression as well as the collective’s social, economic, and political ascension.4 Rappers that hail from New York City’s “inner ring suburbs,” especially those from the “black belt” of Long Island are adamant in making these connections because for them, the stakes really are higher than the sky. These rappers are the children of parents who made the choice to emigrate from familiar if blighted NYC neighborhoods5 in search of a better life for their children in Long Island but were steered into neighborhoods that quickly became segregated, underserved, and essentially ghettoized.6 In this context, the fragility of the American Dream could not be more apparent and the specter of downward mobility could not be more grim.
Certainly the rise of the mafioso-portraying, obvious sample flaunting, shiny suit wearing jet set was greeted with anxiety by De La Soul. On their first three albums they allude to being perceived as an increasingly problematic commercial liability in a competitive market.7 Their main concern on Stakes however, is not that they might be marginalized by mainstream trends,8 but that their attempts to sensibly sustain an upwardly mobile middle class lifestyle for the benefit of their children might be permanently undermined by the coarsening of society. They do not claim that there is a causal connection between the rise of greedy, violent, shallow rapping and social deterioration.9 Rather, they express their frustration at their predicament as it relates to these seemingly parallel processes. In spite of their good intentions, they cannot magically outsell overfunded hacks any easier than they can reverse the gradual flow of drugs and crime into their once bucolic Strong Island surroundings. They are concerned for the health of their collective yet wish that their lives were not so inextricably tied to the collective’s shortcomings and historical misfortune; their art form once held promise as an escape route but now might be the cause of their undoing.
The proof is in the pudding. The once sublimated frustration of songs like “I Am I Be” and “Potholes In My Lawn”10 gives way to album-length lamentation. Every plausible angle of their discontent makes it into their rhymes; “Supa Emcees” and “The Bizness” see Posdnous and Dave wince at shallow aspirations and poor craftsmanship; “Wonce Again Long Island” registers disgust at the inversion of gender roles and the dissolution of the black family; “Dinninit” and “The Breaks” deplore the presence of drug use and violence in lyrics and at actual gatherings;11 “Long Island Degrees” and “Itzoweezee” skewer insipid drug lord dreams; the title track rebukes the gradual normalization of self-defeating behaviors. In the center of the album, “Dog Eat Dog” sees the group tie these themes together. Dave speaks of a friend whose world view pathetically mirrors rap’s shift in thematic focus from unbounded self-expression to gangsta posturing: “my mellow used to wear a/ name buckle now he chuckles ’cause he earn a dime quicker/ talking ’bout a burner, sipping on some malt liquor.” Posdnous slyly attacks the false allure of fame and material success, noting that the backyard and swingset he can provide his children by selling his art “ain’t that important when the park’s around the corner/ filled with life, causing death, breeding victims for the mourner.” He channels Slick Rick’s cautionary moralism, adding “It was the moment I feared” Â to emphasize gravity of his epiphany. As an adult fending for himself in the modern market, he has no choice but to recognize that the competition for even a pothole-ridden piece of the pie will become increasingly cutthroat as society, neighborhoods, and attitudes continue to harden. Regression is not to be taken lightly.
This is a bind within a bind within a bind and De La Soul competently tackles the issue, which is incidentally quite a bit bigger than hip-hop.
Listen: De La Soul “Dog Eat Dog”
- I can’t prove it without a shadow of a doubt, and nobody believes me, but I think the production style is a deliberate send-up of the kind found on Craig Mack’s Funk Da World. Their sampling of his “bass up the track a little bit…” ad-lib and their use of stripped down, off-kilter, plodding beats leads me to believe that they were either subverting or mocking the sound. Compare “The Bizness” and “Making Moves With Puff.” Or, maybe this is the sound that Long Island weirdos inevitably progress towards. [↩]
- Or “hating on” depending on where you stand. [↩]
- I have written about this conflation as it relates to nostalgic rap songs here. [↩]
- Whether or not these notions are or were valid is debatable, but they are certainly present in the music. [↩]
- In doing so, they echoed the choices made by grandparents who fled the Deep South or the West Indies. [↩]
- I wrote more about the impact of white flight and residential and educational segregation on the development of Long Island rap here. [↩]
- I may be guilty of taking the group’s self-mythologizing too literally, but I think it is safe to assume that their relationship with their label and the industry at large was frequently contentious. [↩]
- After all, by that point they had already seen a steady decline in their record sales. [↩]
- Whether or not zealously anti-gangsta listeners are inspired to jump to such a thoughtless conclusion is none of my concern in this analysis. [↩]
- I have long viewed this song as a depiction of the struggles of blacks in the inner-ring suburbs. [↩]
- I have to imagine that the group’s members were struck by the irony of a coarsened hip hop culture flowing into Long Island’s decaying black communities after the first wave of the culture’s dissemination came alongside promises of personal betterment for those eager to participate. [↩]