Mar 21, 2023, 06:26AM

Stakes is High Ages Well

De La Soul’s less celebrated fourth album is available on digital. It’s great.

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De La Soul’s first six albums were released on digital platforms for the first time this month. Rights disputes and label chicanery locked their music away for years, undercutting their income and damaging their reputation and influence. While their Native Tongue peers Tribe Called Quest have become revered hip-hop elders, De La’s appeal is more niche, in part because their albums have been difficult to track down. As a cruel irony, rapper Trugoy the Dove/Dave Jolicoeur died at 54 shortly before the release.

Most critical attention has focused, understandably, on the group’s first couple of releases with genius producer Prince Paul. Their 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising, in particular, is a classic of hyperactive samples and goofball hippie acid snort.

The album I’ve been listening to most, though, is their fourth, and their first without Paul, Stakes Is High. The group does most of the production work, and it’s a lot less mercurial. In place of Paul’s aural collage of Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, and Michael Jackson samples interrupted by game-show skits, Stakes Is High lays down jazzy grooves—tasteful, cool, but not as idiosyncratic. When I first heard it on release in 1996, I was somewhat disappointed. So were many other fans. The album was a commercial dud.

I haven’t listened to Stakes Is High in probably 20 years, but it’s grown on me during the lull. The sparser production gives the rappers more space to throw loop-de-loop lyrics around laid-back beats, from Posdnuos’ queasily boastful, “My rhymes escalate like black death rates,” to Trugoy’s goofy gender-role swapping tease, “Battin’ eyes at Toni Braxton and I bought her a fur/Now I’m hittin’ Whitney Houston, oh, she bought me a fur?” A young Common pops up to drop bars about fashion (“Fabricated acrylic, I feel it, I’m the style molester”); a young Mos Def strolls in to rap about health (“Don’t none of y’all just be misled/De La’s gonna do the body good like wheat bread.”) And vocal duo Jazzyfatnastees shows up to do some intentionally stereotypical 1990s R&B love moves on the perfectly titled “Baby Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby,” while Fat Man Scoop chortles, “Ha hah!!! I pick my nose, wash my clothes, and be back in a minute!” Then he bellows the title phrase with all the sexy smooth of an elephant wearing boxer shorts.

Stakes Is High is sometimes cited as De La’s darkest or most serious album, and there’s a brief, affecting clip of a homeless man talking about the grinding, day-to-day, bland bleakness of life on the streets. But overall the group doesn’t sound depressed or disheartened. They do sound older, but exhilaratingly so. Time has passed, they’ve lost a bit of spring in their sneakers. But as recompense, they’ve picked up new skills (like production) and some hard-won knowledge—like the certainty that you can put on years and pounds and still be smart, funny, mean, and weird. “More soul than James’ ‘Escapism’/De La Soul is here to stay like racism,” Pos declaims, simultaneously foreshadowing Afro-pessimism and turning it into hip, offhand defiance.

The album opens with clips of a range of people talking about where they first heard the classic KRS-One album Criminal Minded; it ends with a voice saying, “Yo, when I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising I was….” De La knew they’d always be associated with their first release. But Stakes Is High doesn’t see that legacy as a burden. Instead, they built on it and cast it off, doing what they do with friends, less spangle, and in places, more soul. I don’t remember where I was when I first heard Stakes Is High. But 27 years on, I’m grateful it’s officially been reinstated.


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