De La Soul is back… well, sort of. Please pay attention, because this may get confusing. Plug 2/Dave and Plug 1/Pos of De La Soul have created First Serve, for which they take on the personas of aspiring rappers Deen Whitter and Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow. The production and beats come to us from French Producers 2 & 4 (aka Chokolate & Kahlid). Got it?
First Serve is a concept album that centers on Whitter and Barrow’s trials and tribulations as they attempt to rise up from their parents’ basement to become rap stars. Upon first listen, one can’t help but think of frequent De La Soul collaborator Prince Paul’s classic album A Prince among Thieves. Both albums are glued together using the recently out-of-style hip-hop tool called the skit to propel the album’s narrative. First Serve, unlike Paul’s album, isn’t so much a cautionary tale as it is a nostalgic celebration of hip-hop’s golden days.
The appropriately titled “Opening Credits” leads off the cinematic album announcing our childhood friends and musical brethren. It’s pure, old-school rap with a funk backbeat, and most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. With First Serve, we have a front-row seat to this cartoonish rags-to-riches tale. “The Work” shows the hungry rappers clawing their way to the top, with Pos and Dave giving a nod to their peers A Tribe Called Quest on a truncated “Can I Kick It?” Early highlight “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along” is a piano-driven love letter to following your passion, calling to mind De La protégés Blackalicious with the lyrics “Sorry Ma, I’m a microphone fiend/Addicted to the concept of rolling with a team.”
Back in our heroes’ fictional world, the duo has made it out of the basement and onto the charts with their hit “Must B the Music”, as introduced by a Goon Time DJ (their new fictional label) calling it “funky, disco, and classic.” Funk and disco for sure, but classic? It is one Fergie verse away from sounding like an early Black Eyed Peas hit. Yes, this is a compliment, albeit a slightly backhanded one.
The adventures of Whitter and Barrow take us all the way to the South of France on the slinky, sultry, dance-driven “Pop Life”. Here 2 & 4’s production shines, creating that travelogue bliss that was perfected by The Avalanches. From the bossa nova intro to the ghostly piano outro, they weave rap verses with dialogue involving Whitter, Barrow, and a French woman in a love triangle to form the album’s centerpiece.
First Serve is so overtly retro, brimming with enough late 70’s strings, horns, and Motown backup vocals that a deluxe version should come with a pair of bell-bottoms and roller skates. In the end, it might not rank alongside De La Soul’s watershed moment 3 Feet High and Rising, but it’s a welcome return to a time when rap music was fun and bursting at the seams with creative samples and hungry emcees. Welcome back, Pos and Dave. You have been sorely missed.
Essential Tracks: “Pop Life”, “First Serve”, and “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along”