The Hip Hop concept album is something that’s been attempted to varying degrees of success: for every brilliant Prince of Thieves and Deltron 3030, there’s a T.I. vs. T.I.P. But, having authored one of Hip Hop’s great concept LPs, De La Soul is Dead, one expects De La Soul’s Plug 1 (Posdnous) and Plug 2 (Dave) to fall into the former category with First Serve.
First Serve takes place in late '90s Queens, with Deen Witter (Plug 2) and Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow (Plug 1) serving as the protagonists. Deen and Jacob are childhood friends and opposite sides of the same coin. An introspective young man, Deen is guided by his moral compass, while Jacob has his eyes fixated firmly on the finer things in life. On “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along,” Jacob lays out his exigent circumstance for the listener, introducing his passion and determination to overcome the trials he and Deen face: “But my father says I need a real blue collar / Can’t support a family with a few dollars / But the damage is done, your son’s a fiend / For microphone and break beats and drum machines / With a large crowd yelling out ‘Pop’ and ‘Deen’ / This is Swerve from the First Serve makin’ em lean!”
From the outset of the adventure, Jacob and Deen share in their misgivings (“Small Disasters”), which turn to celebration once they hit the big time (“We Made It”). But where First Serve really shines is when things start to fall apart. No partnership is without its ordeals, and Jacob and Deen is no different. Both aspiring emcees, once unified in their goal, loses sight of what’s important. The fascinating thing is how this obfuscation plays out, with the individual characters struggling with demons of a different nature. First Serve goes from being a group to becoming a sum of its parts, as the two emcees go at each other’s throats a la “Meth vs. Chef” on “Clash Symphony.” From there, tale becomes ever-more intricate.
It’s clear that the storytelling element essential to any concept project is present on First Serve, but the music is damn good, too. Posdnous and Dave simply don’t falter, and French production team Chokolate and Khalid bring a distinct sound. Listeners will be treated to traditional Hip Hop a la soul samples, disco-inspired celebrations, and harmonica-laden blues when trouble comes ambling towards our protagonists. Chokolate and Khalid, who assume the alter ego 2&4 for the album, are storytellers just like their rapping counterparts, cultivating and molding the aural mood as the tale progresses.
Because this is a concept LP, listeners have to appreciate the non-musical touches that have been painstakingly added to First Serve. Humorous narration by “Deen” and “Jacob” will remind listeners of the days long past bullshitting in your friend’s basement, waxing about crushes, summer plans, and dreams of the finer things in life. The dialogue is of Broadwayesque: simultaneously theatrical and believable. And if the devil is truly in the details, Pos and Dave have nothing to worry about: just listen to the dialogue in “Opening Credits,” during which Deen’s mother, Eleanor, is made to sound as though she’s standing from behind a door (all while screaming obscenities).
While it doesn’t quite fall into the upper echelon where Prince Paul and Deltron 3030’s masterpieces reside, First Serve is an extraordinary listen. The album is replete with humor, drama, and a satisfying sense of duality and resolution. This project proves that, in 2012, the Rock Opera is alive and well.