De La Soul is a name synonymous with hip-hop. Take one peep at their catalogue and it’s not hard to see why; the 1989 masterpiece 3 Feet High and Rising started a whole new movement in hip-hop, spreading a message of positivity and creativity at a time when gangsta rap was arguably at its peak. They then dropped De La Soul …Is Dead and destroyed this mould with the album standing as a testament to everything the group stood for in contrast to the public’s perception of them. The result was their most memorable single to date ‘Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)’.
Fast forward to today and you’ll find that their audience isn’t quite the same. Their most memorable output in the last decade has been through their continuous collaborations with Damon Albarn and his ever-mutating baby, Gorillaz. As a result, a lot of people respect the group these days for their ability to experiment and genre-bend, rather than for their legacy in hip-hop. What this means is that after over 25 years in the rap game, De La Soul have found themselves in one strange situation – they have two very separate, and very dedicated core followings from the hip-hop and alternative camps that come in with completely different expectations, and without having released a full studio album in over a decade, they’ve never actually had to try to meet the expectations of both at once.
Thankfully, And The Anonymous Nobody has managed to walk that line beautifully. A flourish of strings and chirping birds introduce the album like a classic Disney film, with neo-soul icon Jill Scott sounding more like the Good Witch of the North swinging in to teach a lesson to all you grown-ass boys and girls. Then you hear a few murmurs and whispers, a flourish of horns and suddenly you’re transported to some 14th-century regal dinner party on the ultra-slick opener ‘Royalty Capes’. This is the secret in finding their balance; the album plays as a series of vignettes with each new scene being set as the songs are presented, the skits and dialogue in-between playing as important a role here as the actual songs themselves. This gives De La Soul complete freedom to venture into any sonic territory that they like if they present it correctly, and they take full advantage of this, taking you by the hand and guiding you through the entire proceedings (making sure to catch your attention with a wink or a nudge whenever the straighter moments seem a little too sincere).
Lead single ‘Pain’ delivers some classic De La for all the die-hards and enlists guest vocalist Snoop Dogg to add just a touch more of his marquee west-coast flavour to the mix. The big kick boom-bap of the super gritty ‘Property of Spitkicker.com’ rolls in to knock heads before letting the group get a little sentimental on the gloriously lush ‘Memory Of… (US)’. Next minute, it’s like you’re backstage hearing Run DMC and Aerosmith take the stage on ‘Lord Intended’ (featuring Justin Hawkins of The Darkness). This macho riff-fest is delivered with just enough tongue-in-cheek to sell it and features one of the album’s most memorable moments – a full choir singing out to the heavens “Fuck Everyone! Burn Everything!” while Hawkins shreds a completely overblown big rawk solo ‘Slash on a mountaintop’ style.
The only dead spot on the album comes in the nu-wave double-header ‘Snoopies’ and ‘Greyhounds’ (featuring David Byrne and Usher, respectively). However, before you know it, you hear a bus pull away and you’re suddenly sitting on a park bench on ‘Sexy Bitch/Trainwreck’, listening to some jackass cat-call a passing girl to some thick funk in the first half while an old buck schools him on his foolish ways in the second. My album highlight, the super-fat ‘Nosed Up’, perfectly exemplifies the linguistic abilities that made De La Soul stand out from the very beginning.
The album’s narrative finishes on ‘Here In After’ which sees the group actually singing a massive power-pop anthem (no rapping) until Damon Albarn finally pokes his head out of his shell and disintegrates the track into this slinky, psychedelic bliss-out to fade away with. The group suitably return one last time though on ‘Exodus (outro)’, delivering a heartfelt ode to their own career that sees them reflect candidly on how far they’ve travelled from 3 Feet High, and what it feels like to be the old dogs in a whole new yard. It’s honestly quite touching, a very bittersweet and fitting ending to the epic journey that is And The Anonymous Nobody; an intricate and incredibly clever album that proves without a shadow of a doubt why after all these years you still remember the name De La Soul.