It's the Hooks on De La Soul's AOI: Bionix the Bring It to Life

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De La Soul's whole career has been about nonconformity. Their version of it transcends anticonformity, which is itself a hard enough stance to maintain. When De La Soul achieves nonconformity?as on the whole of the Amityville-bred trio's debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, and now again, 12 years later, throughout Bionix?it's like they're on a cloud, gazing with sympathetic pleasure at a landscape marked by rebellion and struggle. Those are the abundant meat on which "real hiphop" feeds, but for De La Soul the guts of rap are the easy part.

The high priority that Pos, Dave and Mase put on their emotional freedom makes them prime beneficiaries of the recent discovery that hiphop can mature. The Nation has made peace with the market, with old music and even, via secure second-class status, with artistry. The modern movement isn't short any sworn independents, but precious few rap warriors know how to feel about the most important thing the genre did and does, which is succeed.

Bionix wins with swing. The album is the second in a planned AOI ("Art Official Intelligence") trilogy, after last year's Mosaic Thump. It's a strategy (itself a theme of the trilogy?the inserts are designed to look like technological blueprints) of guests and hooks. Yes, that's the very same pair that all urban pop relies on so heavily, and obviously. Nonconformity doesn't announce itself: De La Soul followed the formula to the letter but ignored the spirit of the law, as if they simply could not grasp it. It was like a student who, given a math problem, ignores the process for solving it and just recognizes the correct answer.

Mosaic Thump seemed a little shy about getting up in front of the class and presenting its intuitive solutions. It was the group's first album in four years, and, like everything they'd done since 3 Feet, it contained evidence of disturbance?ripples marring De La's crucial image of serenity. A hazard of being generous and open in one's artwork is that it can't inspire such feelings in others if the artist seems attached to his problems. But more than conveying despair at the state of rap, or career dissatisfaction, Mosaic broadcast a natural facility bordering on pure love for guests and hooks. De La Soul have always been among the great melodic MCs and most freewheeling collaborators. In 2000 they settled into a warm, midtempo groove and let it be known that the pop game is the one they play. It's the seniors tour at this point, but hey, they're barely 30, far from tired.

Another weird thing about nonconformity, as opposed to anticonformity, is that it requires encouragement. It must have meant a lot to De La Soul that their peers?seasoned hiphop fans?said, in effect: Yes, Redman singing a chorus that just goes "Oooh" makes my life a little sweeter. And: The catch phrase "All good" is suspect and Chaka Khan is the perfect person to call it into question. Knowing that the gambit resulted in something that was still theirs?still them?seems to have allowed De La to reel it out the necessary notch further.

That meant handing all the winning, nonconformist hook and guest ideas for Bionix over to someone who could really produce them, consistently and with polish. The guy they chose, Dave West, is either a hotshot newcomer or the guy who programmed drums for Rick Astley?amazingly, both seem possible. And yet it's still an unmistakable De La mind-state overarching everything. That the songs glisten and spin nonstop, throwing rainbow light like a disco ball, only makes the triumph undeniable. (Megahertz, Jay-Dee and Pos produced three of the best tracks.) The entire album is visual, humorous and visited by memories. Lyrics are revealing (growing more so throughout the album, culminating in the ethereal, confessional closer "Trying People") and forthright (the self-limiting underground gets as many stinging smacks as the playas); skits are fleshed out with audio imagery that surprises even after repeated listens.

It's the hooks that really bring this one to life. They're interpolations and samples of songs by the likes of Tavares ("Bionix"), Wings ("Simply"), Fat Boys ("Baby Phat"), Serge Gainsbourg ("Held Down," featuring Cee-Lo from Goodie Mob), Cal Tjader ("Watch Out," featuring Jose "Perico" Hernandez), Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band ("Am I Worth You," featuring Glenn Lewis) and the Fifth Dimension ("Trying People"). The treatments are cunning; none of the sources is super-recognizable from current or recent airplay. Rapping guests Slick Rick and B-Real from Cypress Hill, as well as Cee-Lo, are used in tuneful ways unlike what they've done before, all of which prove brilliant?unveiling the purest essence of their on-mic personalities.

And that's the crux of the matter: an essence can reside within a lifetime of words and music and then, if care is taken, be shaken out and smelled. Hiphop's done work like that for a long time, though usually with more shaking than care. Bionix includes but isn't about Pos and Dave's familiar rhyme flows. Its subject is more the type of tool that a rhyme flow is?the way its syntax, tune and tone are transmuted into what amounts to culture. It's unfrazzled, buffed-to-scintillating dance grooves now that are from the soul. Remember how "Me, Myself & I" invented nonconformist bragging? Again, this time without the help of a revolutionary flow, De La Soul got enough above it all to arrange a pop album all about themselves to come across like a unique portrait of a community at play.

It gets tricky toward the end of the album, when De La apply their loving touch to the necessary test of tough rap topics: sexual aggression in "Pawn Star" and "What We Do for Love," then drugs in "Peer Pressure." Slick Rick and B-Real run that part of the ride, teasing supplest swing from powerful hiphop nostalgia. They were probably surprised themselves, when they heard the finished tracks, to confront old-school grownups so engaged and aware, vital and buoyant.

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