LATE TO THE PARTY: De La Soul – Stakes Is High (1996)

“You know them stakes is high…”

“Whatever happened to the emcee? Times done changed for the …”

In the infant stages of this blog, this was always an album I wanted to talk about. Largely being that in the annals of hip-hop, much less De La Soul’s back-catalog, it doesn’t seem to get the praise that I think it deserves. It’s easy to see why, however, as it represents a sharp left turn in terms of sound for the group; one that runs parallel to that of fellow native tongues group, A Tribe Called Quest.

Around 1996, both groups changed up their sound immensely. This was due to a changing of the guard in producers. While both groups were know for their stellar, in-house producers (Q-tip and Prince Paul: A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul respectively) both went with a budding up-in-comer, Jay Dee. The change seemed to split people; some people saw it is part of the groups’ evolution where as others saw as betral of the sound that made them popular[citation needed].

While I’ll get to equally divisive Beats, Rhymes, and Life at some point, I’ve always wanted to talk about this album. Enough praise has been given to De La’s first two game changing albums (3 Feet High And Rising and De La Soul Is Dead), I’ve always felt this album gets overlooked. The initial reviews from when this album came out, from what I’ve seen, are generally negative, saying the album lacks hooks, memorable lines, and the general bounciness of the groups first three albums (don’t forget Buhloone Mindstate). But what the album lacks in immediacy and poppy-ness, it makes up for it with smart, clever commentary about the rap game that is surprisingly still pretty relevant to this day.

The focus seems to mainly be the two biggest hip-hop labels of the day, Death Row and Bad Boy and the aftermath of everything that came with them. On the tracks where they’re commenting on hip-hop game at the time, they give of the atmosphere of wise sages; too smart to actually get involved in all the bullshit that was going on, and more just giving sideline commentary that is never too snarky, but always on point. Hip-hip commenting on its authenticity in its artists is nothing new but the way they articulately deconstruct these “rap phoneys” is what makes it so interesting. It’s made even more interesting that the songs that talk about the subject seem so relevant in 2015, commenting on the state of popular rap.

While that’s not the subject matter on the record, it is pretty much the running theme of the album. It all alcalmentates in the album’s center piece, the title track. This is easily one my favorite De La Soul songs, if not one of my all time favorite hip-hop songs. The song seems to be a cautionary tale about how the gangster life-style has experation date and how there’s no future in it. Add Dilla’s obscenely good production into the mix and you got yourself a fan-favorite and classic song. Speaking of J Dilla (who handles the majority of the album’s production), he deftly takes the reigns from Prince Paul. His production is dark, sparse and minimal and it works perfectly, never interfering with the often dense word play of Plug 1 and 2. It adds just the right of bounce to give the two mcs something to play off of.

All this being said, the album isn’t perfect. Like many lengthy hip-hop albums, it does tend to sag a bit in the last third. There’s nothing offensively bad but since the album starts so well, the lackluster later tracks seem to weigh the album down. However, this is a minor complaint for what is ultimately an over-looked, quality album. It’s definitely not 3 Feet High or …Is Dead, but I think that’s what makes it a great album. Too any hip-hop artists are stuck trying to find that magic again that launched them to stardom, and largely failing. Instead, they made an album that stands on its own to legs, and marks another achievement in what is probably one hip-hop’s most consistent catalog.

Highlights: Stakes Is High, Supa Emcee, The Bizness, Brakes, Dog Eat Dog, Betta Listen

Tracklist:

1) Intro

2) Supa Emcees

3) The Bizness (ft. Common Sense)

4) Wonce Again Long Island

5) Dinninit

6) Brakes

7) Dog Eat Dog

8) Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooh Baby

9) Long Island Degrees

10) Betta Listen

11) Itzsoweezee (Hot)

12) 4 More (feat. Zhane)

13) Big Brother Beat (feat. Mos Def)

14) Down Syndrome

15) Pony Ride (feat. Truth Enola)

16) Stakes Is High

17) Sunshine

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One thought on “LATE TO THE PARTY: De La Soul – Stakes Is High (1996)

  1. Pingback: THE DAILY GRIND: De La Soul – The Bizness feat. Common (Paul Nice Remix) | Raw Select Music

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