De La Soul has done a better job than any other group in history at remembering smart hip-hop and fun hip-hop are not mutually exclusive states of existence. It should come as no surprise then that when two members of the legendary crew decided to craft a throwback party record, it would come with a hip-hop fable built deftly into the revelry.
First Serve, the collaborative side project by Dave and Posdnuous, is a concept album. A sort of How to Make it in Hip-Hop America that traces the rise of the fictional characters Deen Whitter (played by Dave) and Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow (Pos), two eager rap upstarts from Queens looking to make names for themselves in the “rap game.” The project is a breath of fresh air that doesn’t hesitate in indulging certain rap paradigms (beef within crews, misunderstanding and constantly nagging mothers, the pursuit of weed and “bitches” as legitimizing rap capital) but never as a means to corporate scratch ends. Rather, First Serve’s tragicomic archetypes are like spiritual fodder for heads who prefer a hip-hop world where stereotypes don’t exist for the sake of maintaining a fucked-up status quo, but as very real elements of just everyday life.
For a crew like De La, who didn’t see large returns on their efforts until later in their careers, staying positive through the lean years probably became a task of herculean proportions. First Serve’s two protagonists begin their time in the game seeking immediate ends, the ones their real-life counterparts adjourned (thankfully) for the sake of artistic integrity. What begins as big dreams in Deen’s mother’s basement, eventually turns into a big time deal with Goon Time Records (celebrated by the two on “We Made It”), the type of label with executives whose integrity is inversely proportional to the size of their ample signing bonuses. Dave and Pos switch between straight-up first person lyrical narratives and wizened anecdotes gleaned from a lifetime in the industry. Deen and Jacob are believable as rap cohorts because their foils have lived through (or seen) the real-life drama unfolding here.
Musically, French production duo Chokalate and Khalid’s compositions are undeniably pleasing throwback jams: heavy, forward-moving drum breaks slathered with danceable rock, soul and funk samples. “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along” and “Must B The Music” should see a fair amount of airplay this summer both in clubs and at backyard barbecues. “Clash Symphony”, which serves as the climax to Deen and Jacob’s on-air beef, sounds like the accompaniment to a choreographed battle-rap scene in a Broadway musical. Its weighty piano lick is both ominous and playful, the perfect sonic set piece to the fictionalized drama on the album. Come to think of it, for all the negativity that manifests itself when Deen and Jacob’s ego and other humanistic elements intersect with the machinations of fame, First Serve might still end up being the feel good hip-hop album of the year. Its optimistic spirit is buoyed by Chokalate and Khaled’s upbeat production and Deen and Jacob’s self-effacing soul-searching. Even when shit hits the fan, too many good sentiments are at play here to fear everything will end badly for these two.
At its heart, First Serve is a testament to the preservation of friendship against the difficult odds of fame, a fortunate happenstance that De La Soul knows something about: in its over 23-year existence, nary a serious beef within the crew has come to light — at least publicly. First Serve might be the most ebullient album ever associated with De La, which is saying something considering their convivial track record. Other groups with similar longevity and party-loving sensibilities have spent some amount of time drinking from half empty glasses. (The Roots spring immediately to mind.) When De La has taken a turn for the darker (Stakes Is High), it’s never been at the expense of memorializing rap as anything but the penultimate example of celebratory Black American freedom of expression. As far as First Serve is concerned, no rap wrong cannot be righted as long as that ethos is maintained.