Easy album to review – it was kind of ignored at the time of its release and only reappraised later when people wanted to explore J Dilla and Mos Def’s back catalogs and found out that they both appear here and thus, this turned from “that De La Soul album” into “one of De La Soul’s first four classic albums” when it really didn’t deserve to (allmusicguide had this pegged at 2.5 stars before reappraising it to 4 stars, and Rolling Stone handed it 2 stars at the time of its release though knowing them, they’ll probably reappraise it too).
The problem? The production. They didn’t learn as much from their friendship with Prince Paul as one would hope, and most of the beats here sound similar to preceding beats which means that it’s hard to listen to Stakes is High in one sitting (something that I couldn’t say about De La Soul is Dead, which was longer) (and I have no idea why they thought they needed to drag this one past the 70 minute mark when the preceding Buhloone Mind State came and went under 50). Most of these beats are just a thick bass and drum sound looped at a mid-tempo pace through inexplicably long track lengths with an extra sound thrown in for good measure (ie. “Dog Eat Dog” featuring dogs yipping, half of these songs feature keys, half of these songs feature horns – probably generated on a keyboard, no less). They joked when called themselves “De La Slow Music” on “WRMS’ Dedication to the Bitty” on De La Soul is Dead, but there’s no joke this time around.
A couple of outside producers lend a hand and these beats immediately stand out from the dreck around them – Spearhead X creates a live party vibe (albeit a chilled out party) on “Dinninit”; Skeff Anselm cooks up these beautiful electronic beeps through “Big Brother Beat” that disappear right when you think they might get annoying and appear right when you think ‘damn, I miss them’; there’s a good horn hook on the title track that I’m guessing is J Dilla’s doing based on the mediocrity before it. Barring those, the only beats that stand out that are De La Soul-produced are their approximation of RZA’s tortured soul samples on “Intro”, “Sunshine”, which sounds like the title implies and could probably slot in on 3 Feet High and Rising without sounding awkward (shuffle any of the rest of these songs in and they’d seem undercooked in comparison) and the descending intervals throughout “Itszoweezee” might be the album’s catchiest (/only) melody, so there’s that.
Rapping-wise, it turns out the title’s more than just a reference to De La Soul setting out to prove themselves as rappers and producers, but rather to the state of hip-hop (aptly summed up by Common’s self-referential line on “The Bizness”, “I Used to Love H.E.R., but now I bone her”) and the group spend a lot of time lamenting the landscape of hip-hop that had changed dramatically in interim since Buhloone Mind State. Sometimes it works, for example, Dave’s verse on “Stakes is High” wherein he runs through everything he’s sick of about modern day hip-hop (a criticism which hasn’t really lost relevance), the hook on “Dog Eat Dog” and the entirety of “Supa Emcees.” But sometimes it doesn’t – “Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby” is supposed to be a parody track (“Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks”) but it just comes off as a throwaway “R&B bitch over [a] bullshit track” (sharp drums, though, and I wish the album used more of those). “Betta Listen” has some great lines (ie. “Still, let me apologize for sounding so sassy / But you niggas act as if my ass / Has a sign that says harass me”, “I bet your ass is darker than a Mobb Deep track” and “Did you have her coming? / Like the new world order”) and a great hook too. Speaking of “The Bizness,” any points I’d give Common for his verse (“At one point in rhyme I thought I lost my erection / But then I got it back with the Resurrection” – love the way he squeezes out the last word) are lost by the absolutely useless minute-long coda that make an already long track longer.
Doesn’t help their cause that the “Positive contact!” (on “Stakes is High”) and “Microphone mathematics!” (on “The Bizness”) were assimilated into great hooks on better songs by Deltron 3030 and Quasimoto (respectively) four years later. So, why are we here?