Timeless: The Singles Collection
Record label: Rhino
Format: CD
Release date: 27 May 2003

It was an early Thursday morning around three a.m. and I was engrossed in a conversation about hip-hop with a good friend. He makes the point that most rap fans tend to hold MCs accountable by the words they speak, especially those committed to tape. Eventually, the conversation moves to the Native Tongue family, a tight-knit coalition that included artists such as the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul.

If you had read the threads on electronic bulletin boards the day that Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump was released, you would have thought that the Soul had just committed treason. To this day, I wonder what heads were really upset about: the fact that Mosaic Thump had beats for the street, or that Pos, Dave, and Maseo actually let themselves be vulnerable to the changes within rap music. De La is dope, but they’re also human. And they loved hip-hop enough that they didn’t make themselves immune to its inevitable twists and turns. I was one of those fans guilty of elevating them to a position they never asked to be in. Those of us who were doing as De La did missed that line in “The Magic Number”: “Casually see but don’t do like the Soul / Cause seeing and doing are actions for monkeys.” So many of us envisioned our three favorite Plugs in Superman suits, a “P” in place of an “S” on their chests, the ways of the mainstream bouncing off them like bullets against Clark Kent. But MCs are far from messiahs, and even while De La changed rap music, the genre changed them as well.

Such truths are revealed on this collection of singles, spanning over a decade in the rap game. Clearly this disc is geared toward newcomers, but in terms of career progression and conceptual continuity, a few hardcore fans may be intrigued as well. Nothing else sounded like “Plug Tunin’” and “Potholes In My Lawn” back in 1988. We all have Prince Paul to thank for that, a mad genius of production who would jack Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, Darryl Hall & John Oates, and The Turtles alongside Sly Stone and P-Funk. Tracks like “Jenifa (Taught Me)” and “Buddy” introduced a new style of speak, toying with gender-fueled phrases like “jimmy” and “jenny.” Then there was “Me, Myself and I,” the unofficial anthem of individuality that even the Soul would rather forget.

With the “hippie” stamp placed squarely on the heads of the self-proclaimed “others from a brother planet,” things could only stay dan stuckie but for so long. So they set the daisies on fire, kicked the flower pot to the curb, and announced to the world that De La Soul Is Dead. A little older, a little wiser, but still fun (as “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays” proves), it was joints like “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” that signaled a shift in how they would present themselves. The maturation continued on Buhloone Mindstate, which featured “Breakadawn.” This is arguably one of the most beautiful examples of Prince Paul’s production, where Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” introduced themselves to each other’s melodies. The next album would bring forth many changes musically and lyrically, including some that are best examined in hindsight.

Stakes Is High was the straightforward album, devoid of their usual double meanings and metaphors (causing the snobbish to nickname the LP “De La For Dummies”). Paul’s absence behind the production boards introduced more bump and grit in their beats. The verbal venom found in songs like “Supa Emcees,” “The Bizness,” and particularly the title track echoed many of their fans’ sentiments regarding the state of rap music (and life in general, for that matter). Among the strength of selections like these, it’s easy to see why “4 More” got overlooked. While it’s certainly not as potent as the others, the structure of this song would foreshadow things to come. The straight rhyme scheme, the sing-song chorus, and bouncier production would become the driving formula for much of the material featured on the Art Official Intelligence series. “Oooh” and “Baby Phat” may not have the staying power of their earlier works, but it was nice to see and hear De La having fun again.

Some will argue that it is better to burn out than fade away. Even so, it’s a good thing that the Soul has been with us for over a decade. There are some messages you can convey at the age of 30 that you’re not even thinking about when you’re 19. Old enough to be elder statesmen for today’s hip-hop obsessed youth, De La have shown and proved themselves worthy of a place in rap music’s history. In the beginning, they were unique enough to change what was possible in rap. Within the last three years, they were honest enough to adapt to the music’s changes. From 3 Feet High & Rising to AOI: Bionix, they still remain several steps above the normal Rap & Bull.

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