It is hard to name a recording artist/group that has never dropped a dud of an album. Perhaps De La Soul felt they were due for one, so rather than record as Plugs 1, 2 and 3 this time around, they figured they’d exclude P.A. Pasemaster Mase (who may or may not have a few voiceovers) and introduce the world to Jacob “Pop Life” & Dean “D” Witter. First Serve is far from a phoned-in effort and may just be their Modest Proposal for the industry but lifelong fans such as this listener can’t help but come away from the session more than just a bit unfulfilled.
De La has made a career out of doing the opposite of what their fans may have wanted. Exhibit A, De La Soul Is Dead. Daisy-Aged suburbanites wanted another 3 Feet High Rising, instead they got something altogether darker (perhaps their second best album, IMHO). Buhloone Mind State took another left turn, departing from the derisive “Ring, Ring, Ring” shit and while Stakes Is High may have circled the wagons (featuring a developing Dilla and the discovery of Yasiin Mos Def Bey), many pundits were non-plussed. When the Plugs finally returned in 2000 with the AOI series (keep in mind they never finished the trilogy), many fans wanted more “Ooh” (featuring Redman) and less Ghost Weed. The Grind Date may have been their only other album asshole critics and jack-ass fans didn’t get riled up about but that was 8 years ago.
So it is with great disappointment to report, this is De La’s most unsatisfying ‘record’ to date. The concept is always relevant and well-conceived and who better to offer cautionary tales about “making it” in the rap/music industry than the Amityville duo. However, the production end (provided by French tandem Chokolate & Khalid), while soulful in more than one spot, is just plain tinny in too many others. Try as the old-head might, it is difficult to pinpoint even one song he might want to revisit. De La’s lyrical content has always been dense, but this album comes off like a mostly unfunny episode of Monty Python. Heavy on the inside jokes and light on the Ministry Of Silly Walks bits.
De La mastered the art of the hip-hop skit with the help of Prince Paul (and one can’t help to view First Serve as their answer to Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves) but why they felt the need to make a whole album out of an extended gag is simply baffling. Perhaps posted up in Paris on the Rive Gauche counting their Gorillaz loot sipping Pernods and chowing on Quiche Lorraine made them just a bit hoity-toity and disconnected. This album may just find its time, but now is not it.
No one who creates art for the masses is above criticism (they signed on for this) and while some fools will try to prop up De La as sacred cows, this attempt at mocking the whole musical landscape just isn’t sharp or fun enough. The accompanying artwork and videos land somewhere between the domain of Yo Gabba Gabba and that unforgivable Mase & Blinky Blink song/vid from The Rugrats Movie back in ‘98-’99. If only the album played out as well as the Tumblr page for it.
This is not a bad record, just not what the game needed from De La at the moment. Yes the music industry is a maze designed by the Children Of The Corn, we all get that. But that’s precisely why we hoped De La would save the day again. There’s no “Rock.Co.Kane.Flow” here, nothing you could even consider zoning out to, just a bunch of satirical anecdotes from the Plugs’ 20+ years in the Babylon trap. De La does their own thing, they always have, no one can be mad at them for that, it’s just too bad the fruits of their labor wound up dead on the vine this time.
For the Scorekeepers: a reluctant 3 stars. Commence talking points.