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September 2001: De La Soul releases a remastered version of their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. December 2001: De La Soul releases AOI: Bionix, the second in their Art Official Intelligence Trilogy, an ambitious project encompassing the production of three albums in three years. The timing seems to promote a comparison between the two albums. But I’m not going to do that, because even De La Soul member Dave Jolicoeur realizes that there is no comparison: “3 Feet High and Rising was the greatest thing we’ve ever done because we were new to the game, let the barriers down, and just went anywhere,” Jolicoeur said in an Ice Magazine interview about their latest release. But while this album may not rank with De La Soul’s classic debut, Bionix is a hip-hop album of surprisingly high consistency: There is perhaps only one song on the whole album that could not be released as a single, Pawn Star, and only because it has the sounds of girls groaning passionately throughout the chorus.
De La Soul have, over the 12 years of their existence, become something of a hip-hop institution. Since 1989 they have released five albums: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), De La Soul is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993), Stakes is High (1996) and Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000). Their style has obviously evolved a great deal, but the constant has been their instrumental experimentation, which is furthered on Bionix instruments as diverse as the French Horn, flugelhorn and flute. What is more interesting, though, is the group’s diversification of musical genres, most notably the appearance of Cuban traditional singer Jose “Periquo” Hernandez on “Watch Out”, and the Gospel influenced-“Held Down.”
The AOI trilogy, perhaps hip-hop’s most gutsy undertaking yet, began last year with Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump. Backed by the two strong (and commercially popular) singles “Ooooh!” and “All Good,” and the group’s Spitkicker tour (which they repeated this year to receptive audiences around the country), Mosaic Thump was De La Soul’s biggest selling album to date. It also earned them a Grammy nomination. It may not have won, but in any case, De La Soul were definitely back in the public eye, and many believed, better than ever before.
The group’s commercial success gave them the springboard to introduce a much wider audience to De La Soul’s characteristic brand of hip-hop. That’s what they were doing with the re-release of 3 Feet High, and it is continued, to an extent, on Bionix. Whereas Mosaic Thump was geared towards atmospheric beats and creating a party vibe, Bionix is much more lyrically focused, much more a return to the intensity of communication that sets albums like 3 Feet High apart.
Bionix’s place as part of the AOI trilogy is demonstrated mainly through the skits. The Reverend Do Good, a character who appeared briefly on Mosaic Thump, is now given three separate skits, and last CD’s recurring subject, Ghost Weed, also makes an appearance, as does the voice of Spitkicker.com. These elements do just enough to reinforce the cohesion between the albums, allowing them to feel distinct, yet at the same time part of the larger trilogy.
The album also has its own voice, though. It’s a “better, stronger, faster” De La Soul, a characterization of Bionix that we are given in the intro as well as the chorus for the title track. The album feels very solid as a unit, unified by the recurrence of the chorus from the final track, “Trying People,” throughout the CD, and of course by the skits.
That final track, “Trying People,” is one of the album’s highlights. It is a hugely personal song, in which quiet, meaningful and heartfelt verses give the song more the feeling of a poem than a rap. In the chorus Jolicoeur asks, “Are you willing to lose hate for Love?” to which a chorus of small children answers, “Yes, we’re willing.” In a genre that can be intensely cynical and self-absorbed, it is a relief to find a hip-hop song of wider scope.
The album’s first single is “Baby Phat,” an ode to the women with the love handles, with the bit of flab, with the normal body shape that you never see on music videos or fashion runways. It’s a solid single, with a good beat and a catchy chorus, and for its content it is a breath fresh air in this genre. But it isn’t one of the album’s best songs.
Bionix’s real highlights come when the group relaxes into its songs, incorporating all the lush instrumentation and female vocals of the choruses, and has fun with their music. You can feel this on “Simply,” on the title track, “Bionix,” and on “What we Do (for Love).” All three are songs of the highest caliber, well-produced and with a lasting appeal.
De La Soul’s brand of hip-hop may always be too esoteric, too genuine to be truly popular. But that’s not something they’re worried about, and it shows in their music: it really feels like it is from the soul de la soul. And that makes it all the more enjoyable to listen to. They have been around forever, and with the final installment of the AOI trilogy due out next year, we definitely haven’t heard the last of this group. Here’s hoping they’ll be making music for a long time to come.
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