De La Soul Is Dead is one gray rainy day of an album, and not just because the cover art and the themes that run through the music are elegiac/morbidly funny. The songs themselves —with the exceptions of “Keepin’ The Faith” and that god-forsaken rollerskating jam— sound just as mellow and overcast as the songs on 3 Feet High and Rising sound chipper and day-glo. Of course, the somber mood found on cuts like “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” is to be expected given the group’s desire to distance themselves from their widely misunderstood “D.A.I.S.Y.” image. Still, I am amazed at how they effortlessly incorporate gloominess into songs that do not seem to fit this mold at first, like their bizarre take on romantic quarrels “Hey Love,” their satire on stereotypes “Afro Connections at Hi-5,” and even their assault on classlessÂ trollopsÂ “Bitties In the BK Lounge.” By rapping happily on darker tracks and disinterestedly on topical songs, and by busting out into exaggerated skit-like dialogue in the middle of verses, De La teases and confounds your expectations to sustain a tragicomic sensibility. “Fanatic Of The B Word” is more of the same, except that they are beaten at their own game by newcomer Dres, of Black Sheep fame.
After a series of ridiculous ad-libs and a raucous hook that seems to have little to do with the understated, stylistically odd verses recited by Posdnous and Dave, Dres displays a combination of sarcastic arrogance, melancholy, and humble uncertainty that cannot be easy to pull off. He starts with a sly joke of sorts, requesting that some unspecific figure move out of his line of sight, explaining “for I cannot see/ where the booty is” in an almost mock-poetic manner. He finds himself “looking out a foggy window,” requests that someone “crack it just a bit” and then drops the line “Yo, this is showbiz?,” which amounts to a foreshadowing mid-verse punchline. He then engages in some talky, seemingly half-interested bragging, which leads quickly into the dexterous “phonetics and kinetics persevere therefore I kick it” but just as quickly returns to terra firma as he recognizes his unchanged status in the larger scheme of things: “I took the LIRR but I didn’t have a ticket/ had some Chinese food but I didn’t have it soon/ had a dope rhyme but I didn’t have it soon.” Outside the window there’s nothing but “rain and gloom”; as a broke musician on the come up he can do nothing but “hope I find my spoon soon.” This is his inaugural verse, mind you.
Something similarly strange is at work in “Lazy Afternoon” by The Roots,1Â which features Black Thought reciting a verse about a slow moving Saturday and then repeating it with minor variations in delivery two more times. The languid backing music contrasts with Black Thought’s peppy rhymes; he breezes through the particulars of his leisure life at a pace reminiscent of Spoonie Gee’s elegant loverman vignettes. But instead of Harlem splendor we are treated to the dirty rhythms of Philly, where even dreadlocked bohemians shout out surrounding streets piping hot with illicit hustles. Â Black Thought’s gradual conquest of the increasingly complex track culminates in his third rendition of the verse; his voice registers with both the triumph of a perfectionist steadily working on his craft and the resignation of an inner city resident caught up in a Groundhog Day-like experiential loop. Although Sonic Sum’s rapper Rob Sonic recites lyrics that veer towards cryptic, I sense that “Callarama Gala”2 is similarly concerned with the tension that arises when one’s love for his hometown cedes ground to a rising wanderlust after familiarity births contempt. The song’s dreamy yet foreboding atmosphere resembles the one conjured up by the Neptunes for their song/interlude “Inside Of Clouds,” which is utilized to great effect on Tyler The Creator’s “remix.”
Rather than read N.E.R.D.’s “Inside Of Clouds” as an invitation to pen a frail ode to lofty bliss, relative newcomer Tyler wisely houses his verses in the dreary locale that seems to inspire most of his work. Pharrell wistfully posits himself and his pals as gleeful prodigies too resourceful to let the rain stifle their imaginative play but Tyler’s narrator possesses a grim, weary precociousness. He trudges his way through his rhymes as if he is merely half-interested in his own thoughts, flinging the listener into a realm of a pill-addled boredom and fleeting youth. At first the rain Â —which he describes as “angels …. pissing on the demons of the earth”— acts as a damning inconvenience that ruins his skateboarding plans and causes him to revert to cartoonish violence. He is numbed to the social and natural world, Â as unmoved by the prospect of playing in muddy puddles3 as he is unrepentant for hitting a girl and jacking her umbrella.
The violent pageantry of a lightening storm jolts him out of his haze and he realizes that his rainy day imprisonment will lead him to partial salvation via the creative process. He taps into the childlike awe one feels when indulging in simple domestic pleasures (“a sippy cup full of whipped cream, hot chocolate”) and decides to devote this inspired energy to tweaking his craft at a comfortable distance from the regimented distraction of school. The rain is not fully purifying, but it gives him an excuse to briefly retreat into a world of psychedelicÂ wonders. Sheltered from the downpour, he can begin to reconcile his occasional fondness for his home life with the lasting disappointment of his father’s absence. Like his musical eldersÂ he locates hope for eventual redemption even though his cynicism is not entirely vanquished; in this instance he looks ahead to the return of same reliably glorious sunshine so fervently praised by Pharrell.4 — Thun
- from their sophomore album Do You Want More!? [↩]
- From their album Sanity Annex. [↩]
- Pharrel’s sung lyrics praises the rain for filling potholes, which I want to believe is a De La Soul reference. If so, I think it’s fitting that a millennial like Tyler seems unconvinced that filled De La style potholes (i.e. metaphors for societal ills or misfortune or unmet expectations) continue to represent a better future. [↩]
- Tyler’s lines remind me of the sentiments expressed on Ghostface’s “The Sun.” [↩]