Objectivity is dead when trying to apply the critical sniff test to Smell the DA.I.S.Y., the new free album from De La Soul on which the legendary Long Island threesome rephrase a grip of their classic raps over previously unheard J Dilla instrumentals. For this writer, preparing to listen to this record was kind of like being a Seattle Seahawks fan on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII: it wasn’t a matter of if I was going to enjoy the game, but simply a matter of how much. (See, also: the name of this very blog.)
Pardon the tired sports metaphor, but Smell the DA.I.S.Y. is a touchdown, and one that succeeds on a number of different levels: as an homage to its legendary producer; as a renewed statement of purpose for the suddenly refocused trio; even as a sort of subversive reduction of the everything-old-is-new-again fashion of the last few years in New York rap. DA.I.S.Y. is a brief, eleven-track breeze through everything that is good about hip-hop music, and by the end of the project you’re reminded that, even though most of the material here is rehashed, the canon of the artists involved remains an indispensable cultural touchstone.
The most noteworthy achievement on Smell the DA.I.S.Y. is how Dilla’s spare, airy compositions serve to reframe the vocal stylings of Dave, Posdnuos and Maseo. The originally dense, sample-heavy productions of “Plug Tunin’” and “Fanatic of the B Word” are reworked here into “Dilla Plugged In” and “The Pitch”, respectively, and on the new versions the three rappers sound even sharper – the fluidity of their lyricism more forward. This might have a lot to do with the quality of the album; it’s mixed and mastered beautifully, and everything pops and thumps cleanly through a nice pair of headphones.
But there is also a new sheen and, well, soul to these reworkings. “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” receives a complete makeover on “Leave Your Cares Behind”. The original’s carefree technicolor spirit is refined into a subdued, smoky groove session. Both are meant for Saturday nights spent outside the house, but it makes sense that De La Soul — 23 years after they dropped the original version — are blowing off steam in a completely different way. “The Bizness” is similarly remixed (here as “Vocabulary Spills”) with a harder instrumental that actually better suits the confrontational lyrics of the original.
Smell the DA.I.S.Y. is ultimately an example of a legendary crew aging gracefully whilst refusing to forget its origins. Dave, Pos and Mase are still hippies in spirit, just dressed in better clothes. By recent news accounts, the group is preparing for a big year: a brand new full length – titled You’re Welcome - is scheduled for release this summer, and another smaller, collaborative EP with Pete Rock and DJ Premier called Premium Soul on the Rocks has also been announced. DA.I.S.Y. is a deft first step into a new decade for De La Soul; it’s charming and reverent, but also low-key calculated. It eases longtime fans into new sounds that are still instantly familiar. Ten years have passed since De La made an album together, but all of a sudden it feels like they’ve been here all along.