1996: De La Soul - Stakes Is High

3 Feet High and Rising remains an indisputable classic, and there’s something charming about De La Soul’s efforts to match its heights. You can hear this awkward scrambling in the dark humor of De La Soul Is Dead or in the funky experimentation of 1993's Buhloone Mindstate. By 1996, De La Soul were not only trying to live up to their own reputation, they were trying to remain relevant in a new hip-hop landscape. A lot had changed in the seven years since the trio’s debut, and Stakes Is High found the group attempting to blend their signature charm with 90s production (by a young Jay Dee, no less). The result is a laid-back, confident effort that still sounds fresh 13 years later.

As if to immediately establish their resilience in a changed hip-hop universe, the record starts (after a brief introduction) with the question “Whatever happened to the emcees?” “Supa Emcees” hinges on that question, allowing the trio to demonstrate the kind of rapping they think is missing in 1996. What follows is a series of variations on that theme, complete with cameos from supa emcees Common and Mos Def. Some artists claimed to bridge gaps between generations, and De La Soul actually succeeded in doing so.

The best tracks on Stakes Is High are the ones that don’t try too hard: the laid-back party track “Dinninit,” the funky “Betta Listen,” and “Big Brother Beat” featuring Mos Def, which is a career highlight for both him and De La Soul. Both a nod to a young artist and a gesture to some of hip-hop’s forefathers, "Big Brother Beat" is confident in its swagger and catchy as hell. In a word, it’s brilliant.

The rest of the album goes down easy. The group’s penchant for terrible skits is mercifully absent here (though the fictional radio station WRMS from De La Soul Is Dead shows up on “Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooh Baby”), while the record closes with some strong moments, including the title track, which is a polemic against the then-burgeoning bling phenomenon. “I’m sick of half-assed award shows/ I’m sick of name-brand clothes/ The Native Tongues has officially been reinstated” reads one lyric, referring to the African culture-centric hip-hop movement that included De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and later Mos Def, Common, and Erykah Badu. It’s a stinging Declaration of Principles that, in any other hands, would likely have been cliché.

1. Intro
2. Supa Emcees
3. The Bizness
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. Itsoweezee (HOT)
12. 4 More
13. Big Brother Beat
14. Down Syndrome
15. Pony Ride
16. Stakes Is High
17. Sunshine

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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