Say hello to Jacob “Pop Life” and Deen, the freshest hip hop duo to rock the scene and keep funk-fakers shaking they knees… or so it seems. In fact, Jacob and Deen are Posdonous and Dave, respectively, from the seminal alt-rap group De La Soul. Working with two French producers, Chokolat and Khalid, they present a tale about their claim to fame on First Serve.
De La Soul rightfully deserves to be called the middle aged sages of rap. That’s a worthy compliment, considering they made an early stake back in 1987 with the genre-blazing “3 Feet High and Rising.” From then, they have dropped album after album with a growing sense of maturity- and a growing mastery of rhyme- proving themselves as more than old fogies stuck in a youngster’s game. I’ve always enjoyed Posdonous’s witty lyrics and emphatic flow; he’s sort of like if Kirk Franklin became a rapper. And Dave, also known as Trugoy the Dove, provides a nice foil to Posdonous by keeping an earthy and tactful perspective.
So it comes as no surprise that this thin veil behind the Jacob and Deen characters might in fact be the De La approach to ret-conning their entire career, or at least poking fun at it. Pop (Posdonous) and Deen (Dave), despite their parents wishes, are another pair of kids in the ‘80s bitten by the hip hop bug; “Sorry mom, I’m a microphone fiend,” shrugs Deen on “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along.” First Serve plays out like a humorously self-aware radio show: the two “young” MCs first flounder to get a record deal, get said record deal, have success, have conflicting interests, break, regroup, get harassed by Deen’s mom, and so on. Accompanying them are the sample-infused disco arrangements from Chokolat and Khalid that attempt to propel the story to near-operatic heights.
The story has some heft to it, but it doesn’t have much to offer outside of itself. This is mainly because the lyrics focus heavily on the narrative in a way that requires a full listen rather than playing one single and vibing from that. It’s not like The Root’s latest concept album, undun, where I can drop “Stomp” or “Make My” in a playlist and feel the intensity of the entire project. The song “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along,” for instance, has Pop and Deen trading bars about their parents inability to understand their passion for rap: “Through the doubt and the stress, my eyes are glued to it,” while a tense piano and a groovy bass line provide rhythm for a chipmunk vocal.
The song is dope, managing to capture the drive teenagers have to follow their heart and adding a nice storytelling tinge with the silent film-esque piano sample between verses. Yet, the song does not have the same feel without the context of “Opening Credits,” which has Deen’s mom chewing him out for rapping in his room, or “The Work,” the subsequent track that details their ”fuck-it-all” attitude as they follow their dreams. Also, as most of the skits come tucked into the end of songs, like “The Book of Life” which abruptly ends when Pop calls Deen out for his harsh lyric, the First Serve urges listeners to delve into its hip hop libretto from top to bottom without pause. And plus, the story sadly lacks a good twist or at least some gravitas to the whole ordeal. When Pop and Deen have a fight, its more of a “here we go again” situation rather than an event of Cuban Missile Crisis proportions.
But come on, its De La Soul, so there’s no real caveat to doing so. Even though Maseo, the third member, is questionably absent from this endeavor, the two remaining MCs still come equipped with 24 years of teamwork and musical aptitude, guaranteeing a solid, if not amazing, collection of songs. “We Made It,” however, does not get this praise; it’s simply too strong of a disco-influenced song too emphatic of a triumph in the narrative to fully admire.
I truly wish there wasn’t such a weird situation around the release of De La Soul’s previous works on digital platforms. This is the perfect opportunity for people to discover more of their work, and in a less esoteric context as a concept album. In any regard, after perusing through this album, definitely check out Stakes Is High and Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. For the greater narrative that is the history of hip hop, those projects must not be overlooked.