The Prophecy of Stakes Is High

On July 1, 2016

by Blake Gillespie


Today we look back at De La Soul's Stakes is High, which turns 20 tomorrow. 

If De La Soul had one thing going for them in 1993, it was that critics were on their side. Record sales did not reflect the importance of Buhloone Mindstate, its legacy is in those who praised and defended it not as loyalists but as free thinkers who saw beyond the snark of the “Ego Trippin’” video. The language reflects the deep reading and alliance. The Source reviewed it with praise of the trio “vibing on a wavelength three feet higher than anyone else.” Rolling Stone said the record raises the stakes. It’s like De La Soul has collective conscious with the critics.

Three years later, that was all gone. They had to go see the doctor. 

Stakes Is High causes a rift. In 1996 hip hop’s trippiest trio takes an “unfortunate turn for the conservative” with barren melodic canvases, according to critics. What once was the proper dosage of cynicism, now expresses “utter joylessness.” Critics question the absence of Prince Paul and label the Long Island trio as conformists making “assembly line beats imparting the exhilaration of a suburban traffic jam.” De La Soul is... actually dead to them.

Apologies are in order as 20 years later Stakes Is High is secretly a catalyst album that influenced an entire generation, for better or worse. It was happening in the moment of 1996 and echoed for six years in the underground ethos of the Rawkus era. By Lyricist Lounge 2, the worst of Stakes’s impact arrived. By 2006 the obit read Hip Hop Is Dead. When young millennials complain of rap traditionalists and their old man opinions towards Desiigner and Migos, those ideals stem from a prolonged exposure to Stakes Is High. Quite inadvertently, it fostered a generation of junior curmudgeons and the next indelible generation of Native Tongues.

Why the high stakes for De La Soul in 1996?

A seven year itch.

First their fans were hippies, then weirdos, then jazz dorks. By the time De La Soul went to work on Stakes Is High, the message was clear: try to advance the artform, fewer will care. Critical darlings and commercial failures alike, Posdnuos tells XXL on the 15 year anniversary of Stakes that in 1996 they asked themselves, “What do we mean to the world? Does what we’ve accomplished even matter anymore?”

By Stakes Is High, De La Soul’s otherness dilemma stops being funny. If gangster rap is the cash cow, Posdnuos will not stand for it. The humorless intro ruffles feathers. He compares himself to a hostile alien race from Doctor Who, proclaims a darkness so dark bleach is no match, and icings the vitriol with “De La Soul is here to stay like racism.” It’s power over a barking chop of Jackson 5’s “Sing A Simple Song” should conjure fists in the air. But it’s never about his universal laws, not about erasing the divide when he claims his flyness is for forty-ounce drinkers and forty-ounce thinkers alike. Naw. It’s the petty bar after all that which names names.

Stakes is High starts fights. Treach from Naughty By Nature drags Pos off stage over “stick to your Naughty By Natures and your Kane” and Tupac comes to Treach’s defense with a diss on “Against All Odds.” Arsenio practically rolls the credits, again.

If the first three De La albums theoretically transcended rap music, Stakes is High is about being rap music. Because no matter how hard you try to be, or I am I be, here’s what they think about you.

Amassing critical apathy is the final straw for De La Soul. Reviews undermining and flatout misunderstanding the intent only validate the group’s bleak perspective. De La Soul step inside the boom bap framework, relent to the cheap thrills of Puff Daddy production, and beat down the walls from within. Hence Pos rapping “within this program of rap I’ll eradicate the glitches” like he’s a console cowboy hacker from Gibson’s Neuromancer.

No one notices because Pos, Dave, and Maseo are just a bunch of curmudgeons.

De La Soul is old in ‘96. Buncha late 20s cats with tired complaints like they didn’t attempt to take alternate routes and high roads around N.W.A. and Ice-T only to reemerge among All Eyez On Me, the Infamous, and Ice Cream Man.

Hence: I bet your ass is darker than a Mobb Deep track.

Hype Williams’ head has cracked open. He’s accepted Shug money to make “California Love.” Forthcoming, is Nas’ “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled The World.” By 1997, he’ll play devil’s advocate to Puff Daddy’s shiny-suited fever dream. Meanwhile, De La’s “Stakes Is High” video is in an alternate universe of Maury Povich allowing conscious rap soapboxing on daytime television. The group juxtapose schoolyard images, tropes of the era that focus on rusted urban decay, alongside vibrant project wall murals that harken to Native Tongues-esque ideals. Dave does laundry. Dave rakes leaves. Dave empties the dishwasher. If they were rug cleaners, they’d have the cleanest rugs.

Maseo is a stoic prophet, discontent in a yellow track suit. It’s like he knows. Soon Mase and Puff will float in anti-gravity. Soon there will be plastic yellow suits. Maseo is not amused.

For a brief moment reality stalls so that Posdnuos can dunk on Jerry Stackhouse. Years later Master P rolls a golden Panzer onto a court with eight foot rims to perform dunks worthy of eighth graders in their cul-de-sac driveways. Further still, a white nobody named Chase Budinger will jump over Puff Daddy.

If time travel exists, De La Soul test drove the vessel. Upon their return they wrote Stakes Is High. “Supa Emcees” delivers Nostradamus level prophecy “of every woman and man wanna emcee,” anticipating rap’s impending critical mass. It asks “Whatever happened to the emcee?” and Slick Rick’s cadence becomes a time capsule we open in 2016 as we wince over Lil Yachty’s Hot 97 freestyle. But for what, I’ll tell you emceeing ain’t for you!

After seven years of the high road, of defiance of expectations, Dave digs at the cancer with his “sick of…” verse, an instant classic that coincidentally arrives after Pos’ claims every word he says should be a Hip Hop Quotable in the Source. Now extinct data.

Except in samples. Cue a decade of producers exchanging hooks for De La talk lifted from Stakes. “Certified as superior emcee” is a calling card in the underground. The high water mark is Deltron 3030’s “Positive Contact.” The deluge is underground rappers sampling Stakes. More Stakes sampling 12”s have been incinerated by distro warehouses, than Stakes albums sold. Presumably.

The underground will hold Stakes Is High in high regard, but miss the point all the same. Pos will say, “created from the ground, but don’t know nothin’ ‘bout the under” and it will fester with irony. School of Stakes producers will overlook the glib intent of “Itzsoweezee (HOT).” “Body Rock” by Shawn J. Period is a carbon of “The Bizness.” He and Hi-Tek rise to prominence by interpreting the sound at face value ad nauseum.

De La Soul invented El-P’s middle finger on the Company Flow press photo that reads Independent as F*ck. As Stakes Is High is happening, the Roots air the “What They Do” video, an all out homage to “Ego Trippin”’s mockery of rental car rappers. The Fugees garner De La comparisons, meanwhile “Big Brother Beat” reinstates the Native Tongues collective by anointing a second generation consisting of Mos Def, Common, and Truth Enola. Some Detroit cat named Jay Dee is hanging around Q-Tip and the Ummah. He blesses the eponymous single with horns that ring like a harbinger to conquer.

Even in Canada, a group called the Sebutones (consisting of Buck 65 and Sixtoo) releases “Punk Song,” in 1997. It’s three minutes of “I’m sick of…” lyrics. Buck 65 builds on Trugoy’s list with “I’m sick of casinos and big wager tables / I’m sick of foreign policy / I’m sick of major labels” and “I’m sick of the mixtapes and heroin chic / I’m sick of people’s minds that are narrow and weak.”

Hosting disc one of the Lyricist Lounge Vol.I (2002) compilation is like guest hosting a graduation ceremony from a school that offers De La Soul 101 curriculum. It has to feel weird. They needn’t address the 88-Keys production beneath their ceremonial banter and its uncanny resemblance to their own. Cipher Complete’s “Bring Hip Hop Back” rightfully receives the indifferent response of “lyrics right there.” It’s like De La is aware of the ticking clock. There’s only four years left until Hip Hop Is Dead. No coming back.

Are we finally hearing Stakes Is High as intended?

Chris Rock at the Oscars is about being sick of half ass award shows. Homeboy Sandman vowing to strip his wardrobe of brand identity, even Kanye’s monochromatic fashion rebellion is  about being sick of name brand clothes. Finally getting sick of swoll headed rappers with their sicker than raps is one of many reasons we stopped listening to Chino XL, Apathy, and Canibus. Blunts and Versace glasses still carry a threshold. The same goes for bitches shakin’ asses. Ja Rule and Ashanti permanently buried r&b bitches over bullshit tracks.

As for “Love of cars, love of funds, loving to love mad sex, loving to love guns” that’s just uninhibited Capitalism, the unanimous American dream in the eyes of the most rednecked Wyomingite to the red bandana gang affiliate in Compton. Here to stay like racism.

Will there be a time when a white kid gets to the redneck after “Long Island Degrees”, hear’s him grumble “it’s just niggers talking” and doesn’t think, fuck my racist uncle. Fuck people from Redding, California?

De La are here to stay, Kickstarter took care of that. We as a people took care of it. Cared for our elders. The prophecies are frozen in Stakes. Instead of keeping it real, you should try keeping it right. Betta listen.

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