When De La Soul’s first album 3 Feet High and Rising came out in 1989, the trio shocked the world with lyrics of harmony, peace, and overwhelming positivity. Labeled as “hippy-rap,” De La Soul were so purely in opposition to the height of gangsta rap that they were revered as pioneers of a whole new style. The Village Voice called 3 Feet and Rising the “Sgt. Pepper of hip hop,” a record that introduced the concept of the “skit,” a kind of comedy-sketch interlude between songs, and the not-so-legal-then sampling of very well known artists.
After their 1991 follow-up De La Soul Is Dead, the group had trailed on sporadically for six more albums through to 2004. Seemingly ending their run of “oh I guess there’s another De La record,” the group had hit a wall where they just simply couldn’t compete with the new direction rap had headed towards. Of the late 80’s rap artists, the only ones still really kicking are Will Smith (though no longer musically), Dr. Dre, and Biz Markie (he had that verse on The Avalanches record). Announcing a kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund their ninth studio record, the group surpassed their $110,000 goal within ten hours. Showing that the world still needed some De La Soul in their life, the group got to work.
The result is and the Anonymous Nobody…, a record dominated by features, session musician, and orchestral arrangements that barely leave any room for De La themselves. Tracks like “Trainwreck” and “Nosed Up” peel away as easy frontrunners, but with all the maximalist “let’s just throw this feature in there” attitude to the project, and the Anonymous Nobody… feels all over the place. More of a borderline-rock record than it even is rap, the genre-bending works like teenagers still finding their sound more than legends of the game; especially noticeable on the Damon Albarn assisted “Here in After.” Most of the features also just seem lumped in and horribly out of place like Usher, Estelle, David Byrne, Little Dragon, and 2 Chainz. Like 2 Chainz De La?
The magic of De La Soul isn’t their fame or guest list ability or amount of instrumentation. The magic of De La Soul was that they were kids rapping positive messages over game-changing samples in a time where gangsta rap ruled and the Berlin Wall came down. and the Anonymous Nobody… contains really only one skit with “You Go Dave,” but the content is merely promotion for an album that you’d already be 16 tracks into anyway.
As Kyle Eustice of Consequence of Sound put it, “While Anonymous Nobody is a brave departure from the sample-heavy triumphs in their past, at times it feels a bit too contrived, too far away from a De La Soul statement.” De La Soul were never “saviors” or “heroes” of the rap game, something that they say at the end of the record on “Exodus,” but they were innovators towards a new mindset. While it’s nice to know that after all these years they can still push the boundaries, and the Anonymous Nobody… sounds like a group 25+ years past their prime, confused and lost in the changed landscape.