De La Soul and the Anonymous Nobody… is the first proper full-length studio album from the group’s core three members since 2004’s The Grind Date. This isn’t to suggest De La Soul haven’t been active for the last twelve years. Quite the contrary, actually. 2005 saw the group get their largest mainstream exposure seventeen years into their career with their Grammy award winning Gorillaz collaboration on the hit single, “Feel Good Inc.” Since then there have been other collaborations as well as mixtapes, and even a 2012 concept album featuring Dave and Posdnous using alter egos, pretending to be an up and coming hip hop act known as First Serve.
This brings us to the group’s latest undertaking, a crowdfunded album built on the backs of over 11,000 anonymous donors collectively contributing over $600,000 via Kickstarter. This tidy sum allowed De La Soul to hire and record musicians who together put down over two hundred hours of original music to be sampled, manipulated, sung, and rapped over by Plugs 1, 2, and 3, as well as an eclectic cast of celebrity guests and friends.
The first half of and the Anonymous Nobody… is a slow build, to say the least. Jill Scott features on the opening track, “Genesis”, delivering an impassioned monologue over swelling strings, at one point saying, “There’s always something to love if you’re familiar enough to recognize it.” This sentence just may be the thesis for the entire record, but more on that later. Other first half highlights include the slightly uncharacteristic pairing of the trio with Snoop Dogg on the track “Pain”, a soulful, retro-sounding track complete with funky synths and R&B background vocalists repeatedly punctuating an upbeat, sing-along chorus throughout. While guest appearances by key members of the Native Tongue family are noticeably missing, former Flipmode Squad crew member Roc Marciano features nicely with a cadence not unlike A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on the track, “Property of Spitkicker.com”. The excellent “Lord Intended” (featuring a killer power ballad bridge sung by The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins) is strangely placed seventh on the tracklist. With an intro that has Dave and Pos preparing their mics before walking onto a stage to hard-hitting beats, record scratches, and face-melting guitars, it seems odd that the song wasn’t featured at the album’s onset, or at least somewhere within the record’s opening three tracks. and the Anonymous Nobody…’s centerpiece is “Snoopies”. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne expertly delivers his trademark vocal stylings amidst Dave and Pos’ Nell Carter references and warnings like, “Move like a used car and you get used up wherever you are.”
While 04’s Grind Date completely omitted the trademark skits present on De La Soul’s earliest releases, the track “Sexy Bitch” does include a short dialogue that has an older man schooling a youngster who’s aggressively trying to pick up a woman. Additionally, an intermittent, dry-sounding male voice appears on occasion, building on the phrase, “Your music means everything…,” until a full skit appears with the track “You Go Dave (A Goldblatt Presentation)” which works as a comedic advertisement for the record.
The album’s two final tracks bring the record to an appropriate conclusion. “Here in After” offers the haunting, echoed line, “We’re still here now,” as Dave raps about the people he’s lost over the years before Damon Albarn mournfully brings the song to a soulful, psychedelic end. “Exodus” closes the record with Posdnous rapping an “outro that’s also an intro” as Dave ties a modest bow on the entire project, ending with the words, “Saviors? Heroes? Nah, just common contributors, hoping that what we create inspires you to selflessly challenge and contribute. Sincerely, Anonymously, Nobody.”
For all the moments and collaborations that and the Anonymous Nobody… gets right, there are plenty of mismatched moments that don’t translate as well as intended. Usher’s smooth R&B croon on “Greyhounds” feels out of place next to the track’s ambient synth backing and abstract keyboard plunking. Little Dragon’s lovely vocals on “Drawn” pleasantly bring to mind Smokey Robinson before the song is derailed halfway in after it becomes swallowed up by doomed strings, reverse tape loops, and electronic noodling. “Nosed Up” has some clever lyrics, but the ponderous bassline and horns wear out their welcome after the first minute and a half. And with lines like, “I love myself so much I’m a groupie,” and boastful lyrics about money, guns, and drugs, 2 Chainz’ verse on “Whoodeeni” comes across exactly like the sort of rhymes De La Soul would have mocked other rappers for on any of their 90s releases.
De La Soul and the Anonymous Nobody… is an album that will grow on you after repeat listens, but never so much so that the record’s weakest moments ever become completely eclipsed. The aforementioned Jill Scott line, “There’s always something to love if you’re familiar enough to recognize it,” holds true in the sense that while the group’s inevitable maturity, as well as sample laws, may have forced them to leave behind the quirky comedy and hooky pop loops their fans remember them most for, with this bold return, De La Soul prove themselves to be consummate artists, unafraid to alter the way a hip hop album can be made in 2016, and if you know this going in, you’ll find plenty to love here.