When it comes to hip-hop crews, The Native Tongue will always be my favorite collective. From The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest to Monie Love, Black Sheep, Leaders of The New School, and later, Common and Mos Def, The Native Tongues have never been afraid to go against hip-hop’s grain, never conforming to the norms. They weren’t gangstas, drug dealers, hustlers and pimps, nor did they portray those roles in their music, but instead they represented the everyday Tyrone, discussing, as Q-Tip once simply put it, “this and that, ‘cause this and that was missing.” The summer of ‘96 would soon become a hot tongue summer, as two of the core NT groups (and my personal favorites) would release albums in July: Tribe would release their fourth album at the end of the month (I’ll definitely be covering that album in the next few weeks) and De La Soul would kick the month off with their senior album and the subject of this post, Stakes Is High.
Stakes Is High would be the first De La Soul outing without the assistance of Prince Paul’s zanily creative genius (except for one track that I’ll discuss a little later), as the three plugs, Posdnous (aka Plug 1, aka Wonder Why), Trugoy (aka Plug Two, aka Dove) and Maseo (aka Plug 3), would be left to sculpt the sound of the music by themselves with a few assists from a couple of friends. The liner jacket for the cd version of Stakes is an elaborate twelve page spread (counting the front and back), with six of the pages dedicated to all the guests that appear on the album (Common, Mos Def, Zhane, Truth Enola, but curiously, no Jazzyfatnastees) and some of their Native Tongue bredrin: Prince Paul, Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest (even though ATCQ gets at least three different shout outs on the album I’ll use the liner notes pics for Tribe Degrees of Separation for this post). Like Buhloone Mindstate before it, Stakes would continue De La’s trend away from the commercial success they found on their first two releases, but it still received decent to favorable reviews from the critics and adequate love from the streets and the common man.
Like It Was Written, Stakes was also part of the soundtrack to my summer of ‘96. It’s been a minute since I’ve listened to it, so this should be a fun refresher from one my favorite hip-hop groups.
Intro – Stakes opens with different people recalling where they were and what they were doing the first time they heard BDP’s classic record, “Criminal Minded.” Suddenly, the commentary is interrupted by an urgent, almost frantic instrumental, as Posdnous (who cleverly, truthfully and sadly proclaims “De La Soul is here to stay like racism”) and Trugoy (whose abstract bars are all over the place to the point they make him scream at the end of his rhyme) each get off a verse to warm up for the evening.
Supa Emcees – With a little assistance from a Slick Rick snippet, the Plugs question the current state of the emcee on the hook, backed by a thick mopey bass line and slightly depressed chords that sound stuck yearning for yesteryear. Dove and Pos each get off a verse dissing these microwave emcees (that they also bluntly tell to stop rhyming on the hook), with Pos inflicting the most damage with his intelligent verbal lashing: “Entering my constellation puts your lives in jep’, while you others represent, I present my rep, cause when it comes to makin’ dents, I’m the main imprint, even smoke from blunts which give eyes the reddish tint, could not prevent, you from seeing I’m the light, bring attention to my words like some ass in tights, I heard you wanna fight, with your words on stage, so Mase pulls that instrumental from the jam you made, and as he starts cuttin’ what you sold, I’ll talk all over your tones, as if my name was Pete Rock or Sean “Puffy” Combs.” This is a great record, and the content is just as relevant today as it was twenty-six years ago.
The Bizness – De La invites Common to join them on this one, as he, Pos and Dove take turns displaying how they “cook these delicacies” on the mic. The “musical plate” is built around a simple bouncy but funky bass line, and even though the instrumental feels a little empty, it works well for Dove to get his grown man flex on (he’s thinking acres, houses and horses, while most rappers are chasing fancy cars), Common to whip yo’ ass on the mic and in NBA Live (speaking of ass, Common almost stuck his foot in his mouth with the Greg Louganis line that gets censored out…but we all know what he said) and Pos to casually, roast emcees, before leaving all would be challengers with a “simple equation” (“When one shows, he pose threat to this one, this one, will make that one, into none”). True emcee shit. The song is followed by a soulful airy instrumental that Pos and Trugoy use to give about forty-five seconds worth of shout outs over. Then a short snippet of one of Pos’ verses from another song on the album (that we’ll discuss, shortly) plays to set up the next song.
Wonce Again Long Island – Posdnous gets the first solo record of the night with this one. Over a soulful mildly funky bop, Wonder Why reps for Long Island and all supa emcees around the world, as he shares a brief bio and discusses his entrance into the game on the first verse, before using the rest of the song to voice more of his frustration with these trash emcees. At the tail end of the third verse, Pos, specifically calls out the female rappers who substitute skills with sexuality (*cough* Lil Kim, Foxy Brown):”Walkin’ around like they got nuts and use they tits and ass like a crutch.” Then before he parts, Pos leaves us with a precious jewel: “The underground’s about not being exposed, so you better take yo’ naked ass and put on some clothes,” which unfortunately, no longer applies in today’s hip-hop.
Dinninit – De La keeps things light with this one, as Spearhead X slides them a creamy smooth groove (built around the same Milt Jackson loop that Extra P would use for his single, “Ijuswannachill,” which was released the same year) that finds the trio looking for a party and the ladies to blow some of their hard-earned dough on. During this era of De La Soul, it was rare to get a “party record” from them, but this one feels organic and sounds great. This is followed by a short and pleasant instrumental interlude.
Breaks – I’ve never quite understood the message in this song, but I think it’s De La’s way of saying time and chance happen to us all? (that’s biblical, Ecclesiastes 9:11) Regardless of the message, I’ve never cared much for this one, mainly due to the boring instrumental.
Dog Eat Dog – Even though the liner notes credit De La for this instrumental, Prince Paul is on record saying he produced this one, and the barking dog sample laced throughout the song, reeks of PP’s antics. Trugoy and Posdnous use this one to express their frustrations with the growing gangsta rap fascination and doing business with crooked record executives, as they refuse to play the shady games or even attempt to compete with them. The slightly zany chords in the music give off “unhappy” and “I’m over this shit” vibes that sound great backing the resentful veteran emcees’ content.
Baby Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby – The gentlemen at the beginning of the track says, “They done took the Buffalo Girls beat and changed it all around.” Well, he’s referring to Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” record, but the source material for the musical meat of this playful love song comes from another McLaren record (“Hobo Scratch”). The Jazzyfatnastees (which is a great group name, by the way) join our hosts and sing a lust-filled verse, followed by a hook, before Pos reciprocates the Nastees freaky sentiments by rapping a verse. This strange intermission is concluded with words from the New York City radio personality, Fatman Scoop, and then we’re on to the next song.
Long Island Degrees – De La quickly whisks the listener away from the madness of the last record and drops them square in the middle of this soothing melodic musical, punctuated by a howling vocal loop and what sounds like Dove’s voice contributing an airy “dahdahdah” on the hook. Dove and Pos pass the mic back and forth like a hot potato, as they rep for Long Island and, of course, take a few shots at all those other rappers that they frown down upon. Trugoy even shoots a subtle shot at Biggie with his line “Stakes is higher than the sky, I got questions ‘bout your life if you’re so ready to die.” What if Biggie responded to that shot? And how bizarre (and entertaining) would a Biggie/De La Soul beef have been? Just a few strange thoughts that run through my mind on occasion. This song is followed by a short snippet of a redneck talkin’ shit about rap music (he views it as “just niggers talkin’”) before the next song begins.
Betta Listen – Dove and Posdnous use this soulful groove to exchange stories about picking up women. Dove raps about an anonymous chick he met outside a club (whose onion booty had him on the verge of tears), before Pos spits one of my favorite verses on the album, about a one-night stand with a woman named Gayle from Uniondale, NY (or as Pos calls it “The union of Dale”) who hi-lariously tells him “I bet your ass is darker than a Mobb Deep track.” This entertaining track is followed by a quick skit that finds Maseo all the way pissed off after a miscommunication with a show promoter leads the group to the wrong venue.
Itzsoweezee (HOT) – The second single released from Stakes also happens to be a Trugoy solo joint. Over a lackadaisical bass line and semi-melancholic chords, Dove continues to shit on gangster rap and the rappers who worship material possessions. I’ve always thought this was an odd choice for a single. It’s a decent record but is sounds like filler material, and there are so many stronger records on the album that would have made for better singles, but whatever. This is followed by a super dope instrumental interlude that I would have loved to hear more of.
4 More – De La and O. Gee collab on this understated funky bop that finds Pos and Trugoy going into player mode, as they spit smooth lines designed for the ladies’ ears, while the lovely voices of the duo, Zhane, drop in to sing on the hook, accentuating the dope instrumental.
Big Brother Beat – Skeff Anselm gets the production credit for this one, hooking up a dope instrumental that relies heavily on a super rubbery bass line, as Mos Def makes his official world premiere (I say official, because Mos was a part of a group called Urban Thermo Dynamics (or UTD for short) with his brother, DCQ and sister, Ces. They recorded an album in ‘94, but it got shelved by Payday and wouldn’t see the light of day for another ten years, well after Mos became an established and respected emcee), tag teaming the mic with Plugs One and Two. I have no idea who Big Brother Beat is, but I enjoyed this song that’s dedicated to him.
Down Syndrome – I have no idea what the song title means in reference to this record, but this is the song that the Posdnous verse snippet after “The Bizness” was taken from. The plugs pick up the energy level and tempo for this one, as Pos and Dove are in battle mode, firing verbal darts at all would be competitors who dare test these wily veterans on mic. I wasn’t crazy about this one back in the day, but it’s definitely grown on me through the years.
Stakes Is High – This title track was also the lead single from the album. J Dilla gets his only production credit of the night with this smooth bop, laced with an irresistible horn break (I was lucky enough to catch De La Soul performing this song live with an all-brass band years ago, and the horn break sounded even more amazing blaring into your ears with live instrumentation in real time), while the fellas deliver, easily the most socially conscious record in their catalog. Pos comes off like the hip-hop version of Chris Rock, as he sarcastically covers serious topics that make you laugh to keep from crying: like gun control (which means “using both hands in my land”), racism (“a meteor has more right than my people”), suicide (his friend’s “mind got congested, he got the nine and blew it”), and drug abuse (“Experiments where needles and skin connect, no wonder where we live is called the projects”). And Dove expresses his distain with just about everything (bitches shakin’ asses, blunt talk, award shows, r&b bitches over bullshit tracks, name brand clothes, coke, crack, etc., etc, etc.). This is a classic record, and next to “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa,” the darkest joint in De La’s lengthy catalog.
Pony Ride – De La invites Truth Enola (who has a great rapping voice) to join them, as the three emcees abstractly and maturely tell society as a whole to stop trying to play them. Some of the rhymes (especially Dove’s and Truth’s) get too abstract to understand, but the dope instrumental and all its amazing cuts, breaks and bridges are easy to follow and enjoy. This is followed by dialogue from a homeless man sharing the struggle of maintaining (both mentally and physically) on the streets, which sets up the next song.
Sunshine – For the grand finale, De La switches things up to much lighter and brighter vibes than the previous track. This one almost feels celebratory (thanks largely to an excited Truth Enola at the beginning of the song), as Pos and Dove boast of their skills, shit on a few more wack emcees, and for once on Stakes, they sound cheerful. Okay, cheerful might be a stretch; content might be a better word. Stakes kind of ends where it began, with a gentleman on the verge of sharing where he was when he first heard De La’s debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising,” before things abruptly end, including the album.
Since their De La Soul Is Dead album, De La has perpetually been the disgruntled rappers in the Native Tongue fold. Through the music, they’ve consistently voiced their frustrations with record executives and record labels (Tommy Boy has been on the receiving end of several of their sarcastic verbal darts), the hip-hop community, who’s questioned their legitimacy and authenticity, “fad rap,” and all the bandwagon rappers who jump on whatever style is hot in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Ironically, De La’s discontentment is also the attribute that’s helped them stay grounded and true to the art form through the years, fueling their quality musical output, and that tradition continues with Stakes Is High.
Without much help from Prince Paul (if any), De La Soul is able to craft a concentrated batch of jazz and soul-tinged instrumentals, while Posdnous (who is smarter than your favorite rapper) and his sidekick, Trugoy discuss everything from social issues to one-night stands, with a heapin’ helpin’ of industry bashing and emcee shaming mixed in. The combination results in an assortment of dope records that my mature ear appreciates even more today than it did twenty-six years ago.
Whether or not Stakes Is High is a classic album, can be debated, but there is no debating that it’s a great work from the best jaded hip-hop group to ever do it.