It’s the Hooks on De La Soul’s AOI: Bionix the Bring It to Life

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

De La Soul’s
whole career has been about nonconformity. Their version of it transcends anticonformity,
which is itself a hard enough stance to maintain. When De La Soul achieves nonconformity–as
on the whole of the Amityville-bred trio’s debut, 3 Feet High and Rising,
and now again, 12 years later, throughout Bionix–it’s like
they’re on a cloud, gazing with sympathetic pleasure at a landscape marked
by rebellion and struggle. Those are the abundant meat on which "real hiphop"
feeds, but for De La Soul the guts of rap are the easy part.

The high priority
that Pos, Dave and Mase put on their emotional freedom makes them prime beneficiaries
of the recent discovery that hiphop can mature. The Nation has made peace with
the market, with old music and even, via secure second-class status, with artistry.
The modern movement isn’t short any sworn independents, but precious few
rap warriors know how to feel about the most important thing the genre did and
does, which is succeed.

wins with swing. The album is the second in a planned AOI ("Art
Official Intelligence") trilogy, after last year’s Mosaic Thump.
It’s a strategy (itself a theme of the trilogy–the inserts are designed
to look like technological blueprints) of guests and hooks. Yes, that’s
the very same pair that all urban pop relies on so heavily, and obviously. Nonconformity
doesn’t announce itself: De La Soul followed the formula to the letter
but ignored the spirit of the law, as if they simply could not grasp it. It
was like a student who, given a math problem, ignores the process for solving
it and just recognizes the correct answer.

Mosaic Thump
seemed a little shy about getting up in front of the class and presenting its
intuitive solutions. It was the group’s first album in four years, and,
like everything they’d done since 3 Feet, it contained evidence
of disturbance–ripples marring De La’s crucial image of serenity.
A hazard of being generous and open in one’s artwork is that it can’t
inspire such feelings in others if the artist seems attached to his problems.
But more than conveying despair at the state of rap, or career dissatisfaction,
Mosaic broadcast a natural facility bordering on pure love for guests
and hooks. De La Soul have always been among the great melodic MCs and most
freewheeling collaborators. In 2000 they settled into a warm, midtempo groove
and let it be known that the pop game is the one they play. It’s the seniors
tour at this point, but hey, they’re barely 30, far from tired.

Another weird
thing about nonconformity, as opposed to anticonformity, is that it requires
encouragement. It must have meant a lot to De La Soul that their peers–seasoned
hiphop fans–said, in effect: Yes, Redman singing a chorus that just goes
"Oooh" makes my life a little sweeter. And: The catch phrase "All
good" is suspect and Chaka Khan is the perfect person to call it into question.
Knowing that the gambit resulted in something that was still theirs–still
them–seems to have allowed De La to reel it out the necessary notch further.

That meant
handing all the winning, nonconformist hook and guest ideas for Bionix
over to someone who could really produce them, consistently and with polish.
The guy they chose, Dave West, is either a hotshot newcomer or the guy who programmed
drums for Rick Astley–amazingly, both seem possible. And yet it’s
still an unmistakable De La mind-state overarching everything. That the songs
glisten and spin nonstop, throwing rainbow light like a disco ball, only makes
the triumph undeniable. (Megahertz, Jay-Dee and Pos produced three of the best
tracks.) The entire album is visual, humorous and visited by memories. Lyrics
are revealing (growing more so throughout the album, culminating in the ethereal,
confessional closer "Trying People") and forthright (the self-limiting
underground gets as many stinging smacks as the playas); skits are fleshed out
with audio imagery that surprises even after repeated listens.

It’s the
hooks that really bring this one to life. They’re interpolations and samples
of songs by the likes of Tavares ("Bionix"), Wings ("Simply"),
Fat Boys ("Baby Phat"), Serge Gainsbourg ("Held Down," featuring
Cee-Lo from Goodie Mob), Cal Tjader ("Watch Out," featuring Jose "Perico"
Hernandez), Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band ("Am I Worth You,"
featuring Glenn Lewis) and the Fifth Dimension ("Trying People").
The treatments are cunning; none of the sources is super-recognizable from current
or recent airplay. Rapping guests Slick Rick and B-Real from Cypress Hill, as
well as Cee-Lo, are used in tuneful ways unlike what they’ve done before,
all of which prove brilliant–unveiling the purest essence of their on-mic

And that’s
the crux of the matter: an essence can reside within a lifetime of words and
music and then, if care is taken, be shaken out and smelled. Hiphop’s done
work like that for a long time, though usually with more shaking than care.
Bionix includes but isn’t about Pos and Dave’s familiar rhyme
flows. Its subject is more the type of tool that a rhyme flow is–the way
its syntax, tune and tone are transmuted into what amounts to culture. It’s
unfrazzled, buffed-to-scintillating dance grooves now that are from the soul.
Remember how "Me, Myself & I" invented nonconformist bragging?
Again, this time without the help of a revolutionary flow, De La Soul got enough
above it all to arrange a pop album all about themselves to come across like
a unique portrait of a community at play.

It gets tricky
toward the end of the album, when De La apply their loving touch to the necessary
test of tough rap topics: sexual aggression in "Pawn Star" and "What
We Do for Love," then drugs in "Peer Pressure." Slick Rick and
B-Real run that part of the ride, teasing supplest swing from powerful hiphop
nostalgia. They were probably surprised themselves, when they heard the finished
tracks, to confront old-school grownups so engaged and aware, vital and buoyant.