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De La Soul
The Grind Date
Urban Sanctuary

It's funny what a little focus and direction can get you. On their seventh studio album, The Grind Date, finally out from under the restraints of Tommy Boy, De La Soul sound like a bunch of kids playing with new toys. Those toys, of course, are actually a bunch of soulful dudes who hole up in the studio crafting eargasms for the hip-hop repressed.

Gone are the thematic rap operas and groundbreaking, but eventually tiresome, skits of the Prince Paul days. The Grind Date is fresh and crisp, a complete turnaround from their original comeback, the ill-fated Art Official Intelligence. Although it was planned as a three-album project, only two albums were released, both of which were underwhelming and overloaded efforts. By the time Tommy Boy dropped the crew, heads were chirping that the Plugs were on some "old man shit," stuck in a game that had long passed them by. They were rap Michael Jordans in Washington Wizard jerseys.

Haters, fall back. By corralling five hungry producers with a flair for the earthy funk and slippery samples that guided some of De La's best albums, the veteran trio have recorded the true successor to 1996's Stakes Is High. While rappers Posdnuos and Trugoy sound energized as ever, the tight, slamming snares on nearly every song liven a crew left for dead by casual fans.

By cutting the fat and bringing the album to a lean 12 cuts, The Grind Date offers a lesson in simply stated grooves. De La Soul don't have as much to say as they did in the midst of their D.A.I.S.Y. Age, so this album wouldn't work without quality production. The occasionally erratic Supa Dave West, who worked on Talib Kweli's disappointing recent effort as well as on both A.O.I. albums, shines here while manning five of the album's best songs, including opener "The Future." West reins in the ambience for a soul-clapping bounce and the boys — ahem, men — are off and running.

There's a vibrant cohesion here that the group hasn't had since De La Soul Is Dead. Though the songs aren't as darkly funny or lyrically wily as in that era, flossy foot-stompers like "Shopping Bags," are welcome, even if they are about shopping for your girl. Gliding on a Coke-bottle conga line and a schizo harmonium composed by boards brain of the moment Madlib, the song is an apt lead single for a solid, if less cerebral, record.

Other standouts include the West-helmed "He Comes," which features an always hyped-up Ghostface, spitting verbals about hula hoops and giving shout-outs to Uday and Qusay Hussein at a breakneck pace. It's confusingly dope. Little Brother producer and a guy with Jay-Z's number on his two-way, 9th Wonder goes Frooty Loopy on "Church," a moving screed about being yourself that would bump most cathedrals off their foundations. Seattle up-and-comer Jake One provides the album's best beat and spitkicking highlight. The outrageously insistent "Rock.Co.Kane Flow" lets underground king and Long Island homey MF DOOM usurp the illness from De La for the album's closer. Rapping in an unconsciously head-noddable flow, DOOM announces: "He got jumped, it pumped his adrenaline/ He said it made him tougher than a bump of raw medicine/ To write all night long, the hourglass is still slow/ Flow from Hellborn to free power like LILCO."

Keeping it short and ecstatic is a lost art in the gluttonous world of hip-hop. But craggy pros like De La can afford to not yammer for 80 straight minutes over uninspired slop from their buddies. The Grind Date is not their definitive statement, but it'll sit comfortably next to the classics.

by Sean Fennessey

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