Growing old ain’t easy in Hip Hop. Some artists try to conform to the trends of the day, while others stick to their tried-and-true sounds that gained them fame. Time off can make things even trickier. Such is the case for De La Soul; it’s been four years since Posdnous and Dave released Plug 1 and Plug 2 Present…First Serve and 12 years since they dropped The Grind Date, their last output as a trio. With their newest LP, the question is posed: does And the Anonymous Nobody stand firm like Scarface’s Deeply Rooted or sink like Rakim’s The Seventh Seal?
The short answer is they’re operating more like Brad Jordan than the forgotten 18th Letter album. And the Anonymous Nobody is the acquired tastefulness of aged fine wine in the cellar, even if the product lacks cohesiveness.
De La Soul puts on a clinic for any veteran rapper or group aiming to assert their status without sounding like a grumpy ol’ MC and retain their elemental characteristics without sounding stale. They proudly proclaim their return over triumphant horns on “Royalty Capes,” with Posdnous spitting “Us three be the omega like fish oil.” Only De La could kick a simile about fish oil pills and manage to sound witty and bold. Dave knows just when to poke fun at himself, too: “Two ticks away from aww shit ‘cause I’m an old fart, go campaign Daisy Age/Dave Fresh like a pound of sage.” It’s remarkable that after 27 years in the game, the group that did a skit about having dandruff on their debut album hasn’t lost their sense of self-deprecative humor.
A song like “Pain” motivates the soul and the body with its vibrant production and uplifting lyrics and reminds all how De La excels when touching on profundity. “Let me see how many palms go up high if you’ve ever felt the world had you licked/And what you waving side to side symbolize didn’t help on the sand that you wander quick,” Pos’ rhymes. De La also flexes its storytelling muscles on “Greyhounds.” Pos’ tells of a girl whose big city dreams quickly turn to mean-street nightmares for trusting the wrong shark in disguise. The track is bolstered by an emotional hook from Usher, one of many unlikely but brilliant collaborations.
Usher isn’t the least likely collaboration on And the Anonymous Nobody. That would be 2 Chainz. De La Soul and the artist f.k.a. Tity Boi boast over a minimalistic beat that sounds more Magic City than “three is the magic number.” Though the braggadocio is entertaining — “When I’m in the booth I’m Kanye with a gun out,” 2 Chainz raps — the simplistic beat leaves much to be desired. Other collaborations prove more fruitful, such as Estelle’s dreamy crooning over elegant strings on “Memory of…(Us).”
Thematically and musically this album feels like it’s stuck on shuffle mode, and that’s exactly where And the Anonymous Nobody falls flat. The project is devoid of tie-ins for the cautionary “Trainwreck” with the philosophical “Snoopies” or the sentiment of “Memory of…(Us)” with the chest thumping of “Lord Intended.” The latter is a prime example of experimentation gone wrong, with Justin Hawkins’ vocals overstaying their welcome and an out-of-leftfield guitar solo that may leave you scratching your head. Meanwhile, “Drawn,” suffers from elongated vocals by Swedish singer-songwriter Yukimi Nagano over Far East-inspired production; Posdnous doesn’t even start rapping until there’s less than a minute left in the song. A lack of such topical and sonic ties doesn’t make the songs that connect less enjoyable, but it does keep the album from having a sharp focus.
The listener will still have been grateful for being blessed with a De La Soul album. On the penultimate track, De La harmonizes “we’re still here now.” It’s fortunate for us they are, because And the Anonymous Nobody is an album that, though lacking in congruence, displays De La’s staying power.