1996 was a big year for rap music, with hip-hop’s brightest stars continuing to strengthen the genre’s stronghold on the consciousness of pop culture. Acts like 2Pac, Lil Kim, Jay Z, and others would release classic albums during the first half of that year that dominated the rap charts and fell in line with the trend of gangsta rap that had been rearing its head dating back to the late ’80s. Accounting for a hefty chunk of the album sales that were attracting corporate America to the genre and culture, gangsta rap had seemingly began to become the image that many fans gravitated to and pundits identified as a blanket representation of the genre as a whole.
One act that was on the opposite spectrum of things was De La Soul, the legendary trio out of Long Island that played a pivotal role in introducing alt-rap to the masses and had established themselves as one of the more decorated and respected artists of all-time. After enjoying mass success with their debut album, 3 Feet High & Rising, and following that up with their inventive sophomore album, De La Soul Is Dead, De La Soul would release their critically acclaimed LP, Buhloone Mindstate, in 1993. The album, which was the group’s last featuring beats from Prince Paul, would be overshadowed by offerings from grittier acts that focused more on gangster ethos and misogyny than storytelling and lighthearted jams.
Taking nearly three years to return to the music scene with a studio-album, De La Soul had been afforded the time to sit back and survey the landscape of the rap scene and were a bit disturbed with that they had seen during their brief hiatus. So the trio decided to voice their concerns on their 1996 release, Stakes Is High, which was intended to be as much of a wakeup call for the hip-hop community as it was an artistic statement, and with after twenty years worth of hindsight, it’s pretty safe to say that De La accomplished both. Beginning with an intro featuring different fans singing the praises of Boogie Down Productions‘ Criminal Minded, Stakes Is High gets into its groove with the opening cut, “Supa Emcees,” which sees the group asking “whatever happened to the *emcees*” and navigating over the dusty percussion. “Send your tattered ass home, with celly phones I roam/With my fleet, here to make this rap game complete/While you live fables, unstable, acting very radical/Projecting like you’re hard, when in fact you’re quite vaginal,” raps Pos, as he takes sucker MCs to task.
De La Soul’s first two albums may have been light on guest appearances, but their Buhloone Mindstate saw them opening the door to other MCs, a trend that’s continued on Stakes Is High. Common lends his talents to “The Bizness,” turning in effective couplets like “Do you wanna be a MC? Or do you wanna serve/Do you wanna be dope? Or do you wanna deal it/Fabricated acryllic, I feel it, I’m the style molester/I do a show get Extra P’s like the Large Professor,” further bolstering his standing as one of the more promising MCs on the underground tip. One of the selections that instantly pops out to the listener is “Dinninit,” and upbeat number that sees the dynamic duo of Pos and Dave giving the party something to rock out to.
Stakes Is High keeps the quality offerings coming with “Dog Eat Dog,” a tune on which Pos goes for broke, rhyming “My mellow used to wear a namebuckle/Now he chuckle ’cause he earn a dime quicker/Talking bout a burning’ sipping on some malt liquor/And all these kiddies wishing they were supa emcees/But to earn my “s”, I had to learn some less/About a crime’ll make million, a dime’ll make a call/I’d rather hop on the line and drop a rhyme to Prince Paul,” giving a shout-out to the group’s former producer. “Baby Baby Baby Baby Ooh Baby,” a satirical track mocking the mixture of hip-hop and r&b that was all the rage at the time and is the ultimate guilty pleasure on the album by far.
Previously having shown love to their hometown of Long Island on “Wonce Again Long Island,” De La Soul reiterate the sentiment on “Long Island Degrees,” a dreamy selection that pays even more homage to the home of such rap greats as Public Enemy and EPMD. Pos does magic with his verse, delivering “It’s strong island for real, the diagnosis is supreme/The prefix is 516, where microphones fiend/The voices that gots the gift, cause the world is on their shoulders/Makin’ plans to switch from little rock to money boulders.” Stakes Is High may be devoid of the hit records that were littered across De La Soul’s previous three release, but indelible compositions like “Itzsoweezee” more than suffice, ands when you add in moments like Mos Def‘s pivotal guest appearance on “Big Brother Beat,” the album is chock-full of impressive material. I don’t bug out I chill, don’t be actin ill/No tricks in ninety-six, Native Tongue gon’ build,’ Mos spills, before making sure to throw a nod to Brooklyn with “When I speak on groups and I’m smooth like gabardine/Tryin to hang out with Dove and catch love in Aberdeen,” effortlessly finessing and making the best of his shot at widespread notoriety. Stakes Is High is a constant avalanche of material, but its finest moment comes courtesy of the album’s title-track and features its most poignant commentary on the album. Dave gets right to the thick of things, musing “I’m sick of bitches shakin’ asses/I’m sick of talkin’ ’bout blunts, sick of Versace glasses/Sick of slang, sick of half-ass awards shows/Sick of name brand clothes/Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks/Cocaine and crack, which brings sickness to blacks,” direct shots at much of the artists that were dominating radio and the Billboard charts at the time. Pos builds on that sentiment, spewing the assessment “Neighborhoods are now hoods cause nobody’s neighbors/Just animals surviving with that animal behavior,” on one of the most cited P.S.A.’s on rap of all-time.
While platinum plaques eluded and massive fanfare eluded Stakes Is High, it was universally praised as one of the better albums of 1996. In his review of the album for Entertainment Weekly, Ethan Smith wrote “De La Soul prove they can snap on new-jack-rap poseurs as effectively as they did on the old ones.” Famed critic Robert Christgau also waxed poetic on the brilliance of the album as well, concluding “After almost four years, Posdnuos and company emerge from the ether like the long-lost friends they are. Their wordplay assured in its subtle smarts, their delivery unassuming in its quick, unmacho mumble, their cultural awareness never smug about its balance, they bind up an identifiable feeling in an identifiable sound, and just about every one of the 17 tracks comes equipped with a solid beat and a likable hook or chorus. It’s a relief to have them back. But it’s never a revelation.”
In the wake of the release of Stakes Is High, hip-hop culture would continue to promote all of the perceived ills that De La Soul had railed against over the course of the album’s seventeen tracks, but the validity of their message could not be denied. And with the deaths of 2Pac in September of 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. in March of 1997 – both within the year after Stakes Is High debuted – the group’s message seemed to be prophetic in a sense and a foreshadowing of things to come and the crash collision hip-hop was headed toward. With twenty years having passed since its release, Stakes Is High still resonates highly with a large segment of rap fans and still stands as one of the culture’s finest period pieces to date.