De La Soul’s Kelvin Mercer, better known as Posdnuos, is only a year older than Jay Z. I always find this fact surprising, as De La Soul and Jay Z seem to represent different epochs of hip-hop—De La’s fourth album, the scathing genre critique Stakes Is High, was released a week after Reasonable Doubt, Jay’s 1996 debut—and certainly vastly different approaches to the music as both art and commerce. Jay Z has spent the past decade or so pioneering what a hip-hop star can do once rounding into middle age. Twenty years after his debut—a landmark of the very Mafioso rap genre that Stakes Is High was railing against—he remains one of the biggest names in music, a man who can still pack arenas, play the hits, and get paid handsomely. Like Jay, the three members of De La Soul—Pos, Dave, and Maseo—are closer to 50 than 40 and in 2016 are still doggedly setting their own terms of how to get older in a genre that stays young and doing it in the way they’ve always done it: by being smarter, quirkier, and more fiercely independent than just about anyone else.
De La Soul just released a new LP, And the Anonymous Nobody, their eighth studio album and first in over a decade. The trio hasn’t exactly been in retirement: They’ve been touring consistently, working on side projects, cheering on certain Heisman Trophy candidates. But they also haven’t been as culturally “present” as they ought to have been. Due to a tortuous thicket of contractual snags and rights issues, the vast majority of De La Soul’s back catalog is not available on digital or streaming platforms. Understandably wary of a music industry that, more than a quarter-century into De La’s career, has never been in a more precarious state, in 2015 the group announced that they would be funding their next album on Kickstarter. They set a goal of $110,000, which they surpassed in mere hours; by the time the fundraising window closed they had raised over $600,000.
Now the crowdfunded results are in, and they’re mostly excellent. And the Anonymous Nobody is a reaching, beguiling, elusive, frequently brilliant, and totally enchanting piece of work. It is, in other words, a De La Soul album, but in no way is it a throwback. Rather than the sample-based ethos that defined their early heyday, And the Anonymous Nobody boasts the Los Angeles–based Rhythm Roots Allstars playing live instruments, the snappy organicism offering a glancing resemblance to the Cali-fusion backdrops favored of late by the (relatively) youthful likes of Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak.
Pos and Dave sound older and gruffer, as they should, but their trademark wit and verbal dexterity are still in prime form. “Royalty Capes,” the album’s second track, is an industry diss spun over a thumping groove, laced with just the right level of grizzled saltiness: “Androids read raps off of iPhones / I choke the blood out of felt-tips,” raps Dave, a line that might sound a little too get-off-my-lawn if it weren’t so clever. The funky “Trainwreck” boasts a popping bass, rattling percussion, bursting horns, and even a snippet of “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”—classicists can rest assured that at least some of their $600,000 went to clearing James Brown samples. And “Whoodeeni,” featuring 2 Chainz, is a straight-up banger, brash and swaggering rhymes over a stuttering and blinking backup track that sounds like it was played by the world’s greatest mid-2000s Neptunes tribute band.
On the surface, the idea of veteran artists turning to crowdfunding their projects appears liberating, a path to escaping the constraints of entertainment conglomerates who view artists and art through the lens of the bottom line. In 2016 no major label would have given De La Soul $600,000 to make any album, let alone stayed out of their way enough to allow them to make an album like this. But for all the problems that meddlesome suits and the companies who employ them can cause, they can also act as buffers of sorts between artists and their public. The ability to crowdfund projects may free artists from the demands of studios and labels, but it can expose them to the demands of audiences in newly powerful ways. In 2013, a Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars movie raised a then-record $5.7 million; when the film arrived it had the weird feel of authorized fan fic, entirely tailored for the show’s die-hards some of whom demanded refunds when they were dissatisfied with the rewards they received for donating.
De La Soul, however, might be might be the perfect group for Kickstarter. They are one of the most fiercely beloved hip-hop acts in history—the funding drive received donations from over 11,000 individual backers. What’s more, one of the primary reasons De La Soul is beloved—perhaps the primary reason—is their ongoing, steadfast refusal to conform to the ever-shifting terms of their own legacy. This is a group whose second LP was conceived as an album-length “answer record” to their first, equal parts eulogy and rebuttal; the group’s Art Official Intelligence trilogy is currently two albums deep and has been for 15 years. The unifying quality of De La Soul’s catalog is the restless, peripatetic creativity of the group itself. No one loves De La Soul for their skill in delivering the expected; they love them for precisely the opposite.
That spirit is honored here, and like so much of De La Soul’s work, And the Anonymous Nobody is most remarkable for its beauty. De La Soul may boast the prettiest catalog in all of hip-hop: From the ravishing sparkle of “Eye Know” and “Breakadawn” to the sublime melancholy of “Fallin’ ” and “I Am I Be” to the ebullient pleasures of “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’ ” and “Oooh,” they have long ranked among music’s greatest aestheticists. And the Anonymous Nobody at times feels more like an art-pop record than a rap record, and not just on the Remain in Light–ish David Byrne collab “Snoopies.” The sumptuous “Memory of… (Us)” boasts contributions by Estelle and the great Pete Rock; “Greyhounds,” featuring Usher, is a miniature epic of crushed bright-lights dreams that unfolds over a churning backdrop of synth pads and pulsing bass and drums. Perhaps the album’s loveliest track is “Drawn,” an intoxicating blend of pizzicato strings and soaring vocal harmonies by Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon. Pos doesn’t show up until the last minute of the song, rapping a concise and bittersweet verse on the pitfalls of fame. (“I didn’t mean to be a whore but my hormones / Had me like a fiend, screaming ‘what you got for me?’ / two words—I’m mortal / but the fans lift them both together and remove the apostrophe.”)
And the Anonymous Nobody isn’t for everybody, and that’s fine: This is music that’s content for people to come to it and to exist on its own terms in the meantime. It’s not a masterpiece—“Lord Intended,” which includes a guest spot from Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, is too long and too dull, and the Snoop Dogg feature “Pain” can’t help but feel like an oldies review. What’s more, in an album chock full of special guests the stars of the show sometimes feel a bit eclipsed—Maseo’s presence, such an important ingredient as the voluble and irrepressible host of the party, is particularly muted. But there’s always been something sort of fundamentally elusive about De La Soul, its catalog full of alter egos and playfully opaque cosmologies, and expansive spotlights, too: This is a group whose 1989 single “Buddy” was released in a 12-inch version that featured six people who weren’t actually members of De La Soul. That was 27 years ago; so much has changed since then, but when it comes to being De La … well, there’s still no one else.