De La Soul’s fourth album, 1996’s Stakes Is High, celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. Andrew Friedman reflects on how its tense, cynical stance warned of the cracks about to divide the hip-hop community forever.
It’s hard to untangle De La Soul’s Stakes Is High from the existential struggle for the direction of hip-hop into which it was born, 20 years ago this week. The internal debate about rap’s direction, its ownership, and its influence has gone on as long as the genre has existed, but 1996 was probably the the last year that the conversation was taking place within anything resembling a contiguous hip-hop community. The schisms along race, locale, politics, economics and aesthetics were plain to see, but were yet to erupt. The coastal beefs were still in effect and, as of July 2, the day De La’s fourth album hit stores, both Biggie and Pac were still alive.
To underline the point, Stakes came out on the same day as Nas’s It Was Written. The Queens rapper’s debut, 1994’s Illmatic, was revolutionary but commercially disappointing. To balance his lyrical abilities with the demands of an increasingly broad pop audience, Nas leveled himself up from the small time hustler of Illmatic to the kingpin Nas Escobar. It Was Written became a bellwether for the direction of the genre as a whole, and critics and fans analyzed the album like haruspices. Shit was kind of wild.
Into this fray, De La Soul released an album packed with complaints about “champagne sippin’ money fakers” and how “times done changed for the MC”. Trugoy the Dove memorably proclaims himself “sick of bitches shakin’ asses / Sick of Versace glasses / Sick of slang, sick of half-assed award shows / Sick of name-brand clothes” on the Dilla-produced title track. More directly, he later quips about having “questions ’bout your life if you so ready to die“. With typical De La cheekiness, Stakes even includes some satire, lampooning Bad Boy-esque rap and bullshit over a lazy Malcolm McLaren sample on ‘Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby’.
It’s a grumpy and often confrontational album, and feelings about Stakes tended to correlate with feelings about the rap game in general. This only became more obvious as hip-hop split into “commercial” and “underground” factions deeper into the ‘90s and the backpacker industrial complex turned shaming The Platonic Idea Of Ma$e into a profitable venture. An entire subgenre of hip-hop devoted to grandstanding about the perceived right way to make rap music sprang up, and Stakes appeared to fit neatly into its narrative.
Twenty years on from the tense era in which it dropped, however, Stakes Is High doesn’t really seem like an album about how shiny suit rappers are ruining the sanctity of rap. It’s about the juncture of art and commerce and the downside to the growth of hip-hop as a business. The problem isn’t just that Nas reinvented himself as a coke kingpin, it’s that he did it as a marketing strategy rather than a creative decision. All debates about the pros and cons of cinematic, but mostly fraudulent, crime rap aside, more money meant more pressure on artists to think about commercial viability, and less impetus to talk about the relatable day-to-day shit which gave the genre its heart in the first place. There’s a damn good reason why, in the video for ‘Stakes Is High’, De La Soul are doing normal shit like dishes, laundry and yard work.
After all, the trio had always fought tooth and nail against the industry logic of staying on-brand. While the unfettered weirdness of 1989’s 3 Feet High And Rising made them stars, they resented how the album’s aesthetic defined them and spent the next two projects aggressively course-correcting to avoid being pigeonholed (as well as brawling with a lot of rappers who thought they were soft – they weren’t). Neither the title nor the cover of 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead are subtle. In that light, it’s fair to wonder how much of the lack of experimentation on Stakes is Prince Paul’s absence and how much is just resignation. (There’s also something to be said here about blackness, the marketing challenges of “alternative rap” in a diversifying hip-hop audience, and De La’s roots in New York’s first-ring suburbs, but this article handles those topics far better than I could.)
The last two decades have reshaped the industry (to say nothing of society itself) in ways that make it easy to revisit the generally pleasant Stakes Is High without getting bummed out by its negativity. For one, the rise of social media and the complicated voyeurism of modern celebrity makes the novelty of the ‘Stakes Is High’ video entirely moot: we see rappers doing day-to-day shit all the time now. But more importantly, after finessing their way out of their original record deal and floating around the indie world for a few years, De La Soul crowdfunded an album last year on Kickstarter. The Anonymous Nobody comes out in August, with features from the likes of Snoop Dogg, 2 Chainz, Little Dragon and Roc Marciano, thanks to over $600,000 raised in less than one day. It’s safe to assume the 11,000-strong fans who chipped in have little or no interest in limiting the group’s creative impulses for the sake of marketing. It’s the kind of record deal De La had been searching for since 1989.