The last time most people heard from De La Soul, they probably didn’t realize it: The New York-based group recorded a lean, mean rap interlude on the Gorillaz single “Feel Good Inc.,” punctuated by ominous laughter and Care Bear death wishes. Twenty years on, they still can’t resist squashing the original “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” legacy that launched them into the upper reaches of the early alternative rap movement, even while their infamous follow-up, the almost comically vengeful De La Soul Is Dead, more or less cemented their irrelevancy. But it’s 2009, Kanye is the new Dre, Chicago is the new West Side, and hey, there’s never been a better time to be in the alt-rap business. So if that means the most exciting new De La Soul material in years comes in the form of an online-exclusive, Nike-sponsored workout mixtape, then so be it: Selling out is the new keeping it real.
Are You In? falls into 10 distinct parts—the gimmick is that by the time you reach the electric guitars and megaphone protest lyrics of “Pick Up the Pace (Run),” your treadmill will be up to eight miles an hour—but they blend into each other seamlessly: Chicago-based producers Flosstradamus, the coolest new white dudes on the block, trick out the album with the latest hip-hop toolkit, including synths and soul backup vocals—especially in the more poignant opening and closing parts. De La Soul has always worked better in lo-fi, and the cheesy Rock Band-like guitars and drums in the middle section sound suspiciously like Moby’s disastrous collaboration with Public Enemy a couple of years ago, but this is still an album that clearly belongs to De La Soul, and they’re not shy about it. While they’ve largely eschewed the improvisational samples and jazz-influenced music of their best work, Pos, Dave, and Maseo remain some of the most trenchant MCs around, able to spin listeners’ heads with lines that slowly unravel their meaning.
Near the end of Are You In?, De La Soul hark back to their “black terror” roots: “Thorough-bred, NYC borough-bred/We burrow through dirt and crack open cement.” That might sound ironic given the swoosh logo imprinted on the top of the album art, but like the underrated Stakes Is High, this new album tempers De La Soul’s creative enthusiasm with biting social critique; on “Forever,” the end of the world is just another excuse to sit back and down some 40s. Luckily, the new De La Soul is still the old De La Soul.