Media Review - De La Soul, The Grind Date and Handsome Boy Modeling School, White People
Coupling these albums seems unavoidable, given that Prince Paul, half of the Handsome Boy duo, is best known as producer for De La's first three albums and that the plug trio appear on White People (also, both albums have tracks entitled "It's Like That.") Unfortunately, bracketing these two albums may lead listeners to make a choice; you can't like them both, so one has to be disparaged in favor of the other. I actually like both, although I find I'm listening to Handsome Boy more than The Grind Date.
The position of these acts in the industry is quite interesting, since De La, previously on Tommy Boy (the label that released the first Handsome Boy album, So... How's Your Girl?) released this album on their own AOI label through Sanctuary Records, while Handsome Boy Modeling School's new one is on Atlantic/Elektra. Despite their role as leaders of the late 80s-early 90s Native Tongues posse, which appeared at the time to be a viable commercial alternative to the gangsta rap that would soon dominate hip-hop, De La Soul can be comfortably referred to now as "alternative rap," the category of hip hop defined primarily by being outside the "mainstream" of commercial rap. Meanwhile, Dan the Automator, the other half of Handsome Boy, went platinum recently with his Gorillaz project. Shadowy cult hip hop figure MF Doom and "positive" alt-rap perennial Common appear on Grind Date, while Pharrell Williams, RZA, Jay-Z and somebody from Linkin Park appear on White People.
This doesn't mean that the Handsome Boy Modeling School have gone "straight" by any stretch. In fact, their list of guest stars is like a who's who of alternative hip hop and rock (including past collaborators like Kid Koala, El-P and Del tha Funkee Homosapien.) Several other familiar but welcome names appear, like DJ Qbert, Mike Patton, Casual from the Hieroglyphics (one of the best unsung MCs around,) Rahzel from the Roots and Julee Cruise. De La Soul themselves appear on the second track of White People ("If It Wasn't For You") and their reunion with Prince Paul is as good as anything on The Grind Date.
With a few exceptions, White People seems driven more by Dan's sensibilities than Paul's, particularly in the choice of collaborators. Del, who has worked with Automator on the fantastic Deltron album and with the Gorillaz since the first Handsome Boy release, appears on what sounds like the first single ("The World's Gone Mad") which isn't a bad track, but is probably intended partly as a taster for another Gorillaz CD. Mike Patton, who appeared all over the highly underrated Lovage album (Songs To Make Love To Your Old Lady By, practically an unofficial Handsome Boy release) sings on a decent track ("Are You Down With It") and the Casual track is excellent. This is my first exposure to Cat Power, but her tastefully sensual singing didn't strike me as anything worth seeking out. There are a few tracks that suggest Prince Paul's more recent work, but it seems more like this is Automator's project, at least musically.
Sketches throughout the album continue to half-heartedly develop the Chris Elliott sitcom-inspired concept that gives the group its name, but the album could do without the concept. That said, the Dating Game sketch with Jay-Z and RZA effortlessly upstaging comedian Tim Meadows (playing his Ladies' Man character; again, do we need this?) is hilarious. Seriously, between this and his appearances on Chappelle's Show, RZA needs to have some regular outlet for comedy. The mini-suite "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2" doesn't really cohere like it should, coming across instead as a preachy, Guru-style lecture on old school shuffled with bits of unfinished songs. "Class System" sounds like it was conceived for Lovage. In fact, a listener is reminded frequently of better stuff by these guys throughout White People.
I skipped De La's last album, the second Art Official Intelligence project Bionix, since the first release was so pedestrian. Rumor has it the second was a substantial improvement, so that might have been a mistake. Regardless, The Grind Date, a replacement album while they try to place their third AOI piece (alleged to be a DJ album!) isn't bad at all, but doesn't have the coherence or inventiveness of their first three Prince Paul collaborations (unlike many, I think De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate are at least the equal of 3 Feet High and Rising.)
De La usually rise to the level of their collaborators, but not much higher, and they use several producers who bring some really good material, including Supa Dave West (providing the superb title track,) Ninth Wonder ("Church") and J-Dilla ("Verbal Clap.") There are several disappointing tracks, like both of the Madlib productions, "Shopping Bags" and "Come on Down," the Carl Thomas collaboration "It's Like That" and another dull Common appearance on "Days of Our Lives."
I couldn't fail to mention the welcome presence of the always-fantastic Ghostface on "He Comes," a song that sounds like it could have easily come off of The Pretty Toney Album. Ghostface seems entirely at home rapping after the De La trio and raises the energy level of the album measurably. Flava Flav makes an appearance on "Come On Down," reminding everyone of the time when Long Island hip-hop represented by De La and Public Enemy held a serious claim to the artistic vanguard, although there's no evidence of that here. I suppose the fact that The Grind Date features several exceptional tracks should be taken as a blessing, given the state of recent PE releases. The last track features ubiquitous underground superstar MF Doom and, unsurprisingly, it sounds a lot like it could have come from a Viktor Vaughn album.
White People and Grind Date are both worth having, although neither of these releases represents an advance for the talents involved. De La Soul and the Handsome Boy players all seem to be in transition, career-wise, which has put each of them into something of a holding pattern creatively. Once De La settle into a new label and Automator decides what he wants to do with the commercial potential his Gorillaz and remixing success has brought, that will probably change. Certainly, neither of these albums suggest that these acts have lost their mojo.