De la Soul mixtape offers nothing new

Need proof that mainstream hip-hop is bloated, lazy and hollow? A professional basketball player just released a full-length rap album and it’s better than what’s on iTunes’ Top 10 right now. Hip-hop needs to go through what rock went through in 1977 — the year punk burst full force onto the music scene and infused it with new energy and fresh ideas. In other words, hip-hop needs a kick in the ass. Is De La Soul the group to give this kick in the ass? No, and here’s why:

De La Soul’s “AOI Presents: Impossible Mission” is a mixtape promoting the critically acclaimed group’s upcoming album. This trend of releasing mixtapes, compilations of songs designed to generate hype for new artists and CDs with imminent release dates, has become increasingly prevalent in hip-hop over the last few years. While most mixtapes skimp on quality content, saving the best tracks for the real album, De La Soul’s is rich with content and is a testament to all of the trio’s strengths and limitations.

Narrated by the group itself, the record features unreleased tracks, new songs and live performances that showcase how the three MCs have evolved over their long career together. Most of the new material is worthy of the group’s well-respected earlier canon and a few songs really stand out: “Wasn’t for You” makes use of metaphor to paint a rich picture of rap stardom and “The Corner” paints a different kind of picture — that of the street corner, but one far more nuanced and interesting than what you might find in a Young Jeezy song. In “Reverse Your Steps,” another strong cut off the mixtape, Maseo says “You’re whole style’s tacky … you’re just a kitten in a lion’s den.” It’s a beef track in which De la Soul calls out modern MC’s for being unoriginal and phony, which are both fair indictments. But then again, what’s so original about a beef track? In fact, what’s so original about rapping about fame or your street corner? Nothing, and that’s why De la Soul will not change hip-hop beyond what they’ve already done — they’re too stuck in old conventions of subject and style in rap, as “Impossible Mission” shows.

No fresh topics are covered in “Impossible Mission.” As finely crafted as their flows might be, De La Soul is still rapping about girls, fame and how bad other rappers are. They’re damn good at it, to be sure, but they aren’t challenging the genre with new concepts or creative subject matter. Indeed, in some ways De La Soul has not absorbed the best of what modern hip-hop has to offer: great production. Most of the tracks on “Impossible Mission” feature straightforward loops that are not up to the standards Kanye West set over the past few years. Maybe this was done on purpose in order to maintain a raw mixtape feel, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

So De La Soul isn’t going to usher in a new wave of hip-hop. Fine. As creators of some of the best albums in the genre, they can be forgiven and hip-hop fans can keep on waiting for change in the mainstream. In the meantime, though, fans of the group should still go pick up “Impossible Mission.” De La Soul were kings of ’90s hip-hop and this mixtape is a testament to their confidence and maturity as artists. The trio never relies on vocal echoes or other cheesy gimmicks so prevalent in current hip-hop, and instead delivers flow after flow of funky, hard-hitting rhymes. The whole disc displays a level of skill absent from many of today’s releases and will certainly bring joy to hip-hop fans bemoaning the current trend toward unintelligent rap.

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