De La Soul: Good Enough to Steal

Early last month, Aaron Williams over at Uproxx reminded us that De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out 30 years ago. Oh, man. This was one of the classic albums from my high school years. Even though it was released just three months shy of graduation, it made a seismic impression on both me and my fellow seniors. It seemed like we all had a copy, and it got played at every party we went to until the end of the school year. It was the ubiquitous, smart, feelgood party record from the spring of 1989.

How good is this album? About a month after I first bought it, a friend borrowed it for a party she was going to, then had to sheepishly tell me the next day that someone had swiped it while she wasn’t looking.

That’s how good 3 Feet High and Rising is: it’s good enough to steal. I can’t say that about any other album from my high school years.

But, of course, there’s much more to this record than just that.

For my buddy, Derek, a fellow De La fan from way back, 3 Feet High and Rising appeared at an equally impressionable time – the back end of middle school in his native Baltimore – and made an immediate impact on him. The songs struck him as more intricate and melodic than other hip-hop from that era, built more along the melodies of the samples being used. Case in point: “Say No Go” and “Eye Know,” both of which introduced a new generation of music fans to Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, respectively.

Derek remembers when there used to be many different kinds of hip-hop personas on the scene – some defined by hard beats, flowing rhymes, and overt political themes – and De La Soul (along with their colleagues from the Native Tongues collective) pioneered a new one: it was nerdier, wittier, and funnier – and atypical of their contemporaries. The group summed themselves up perfectly on one of 3 Feet‘s signature tracks, “Buddy,” when they said, “De La Soul, from the soul / Black medallions, no gold.” Derek loved how they made easygoing Afrocentrism an acceptable hip-hop personality.

So did I. For me, 3 Feet remains fun and sunny, an album made in an emblematic emotional major key, and one that also features a more positive, humble, wide-ranging worldview than the prevailing hip-hop from that era. The record’s smooth beats and its sense of rhythm and syncopation are more akin to jazz, but its still just as funky and danceable as one expects hip-hop to be. (The Dean himself, Robert Christgau, said it best in his review of the album: “…they’re new wave to Public Enemy’s punk.”)

3 Feet High and Rising‘s effect on hip-hop was significant and immediate:The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll crowned it the best album of 1989. By the mid-1990s, De La Soul’s influence could be heard in the music of Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Us3, Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, and about five million other hip-hop groups. (For a more in-depth and objective take, check out Jeff Chang’s appraisal at Pitchfork.) And, in 2010, the Library of Congress added 3 Feet to their National Recording Registry of recordings deemed socially, culturally, or artistically important.

For me and Derek, it’s easily one of the top 10 greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. Hands down, no question.

I would almost say that it’s still worth stealing, but the stone cold truth is that 3 Feet High and Rising is even better than that: it’s worth shelling out your hard-earned ducats to pay full list price for. I can’t say that about most other albums from my high school years.

Introducing Perfect Album Sides

The concept of the perfect album side is not a new one. I was first introduced to it by the radio station of my youth: 102.7 WNEW-FM, billed as “the place were rock lives.” Mondays through Fridays at midnight, they would play a different album side by listener request (this was back in the days when albums had actual sides). It was such a fun, cool way to learn about rock music in a way that allowed for a deeper dive into a given artist’s work, one that covered more than just their well-known hits (although there were still plenty of those to go around). This was how I got introduced to a slew of back catalogue surprises, weird curiosities, and some new favorites, sometimes all within the same week.

The midnight Perfect Album Side was one of my favorite features on WNEW, so I’m reviving it here as Strictly Back Catalogue‘s leadoff recurring column.

First up: side two of The Police’s classic 1983 album, Synchronicity. In my view, this is a great example of a perfect album side. It has thematic and tonal consistency, exemplary songwriting, and strong musicianship. There are catchy hooks galore here – all the more impressive since it may also be one of the most dour and idiosyncratic albums to ever go multi-platinum. The Police faced multiple obstacles during recording: Sting’s first marriage had just fallen apart, tensions within the band had reached a breaking point (and, sure enough, they broke up for good after an 8-month world tour), and they chose some puzzling sources of inspiration for the album: Arthur Koestler’s book about parapsychology, The Roots of Coincidence, and Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Not your typical pop music jumping-off points.

And yet, The Police managed to create a striking, powerful, hypnotic work out of disparate elements that would have usually bored a lecture hall full of college freshman and ended more than a few friendships, respectively. Synchronicity‘s best qualities are on full display on side two. Check it:

“Every Breath You Take”

Robert Christgau called this one “the single of the summer,” which it was: it spent eight consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. Top 40 in the middle of Thriller-mania, which was no small feat. In his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh wrote that “Every Breath You Take” announces itself as a classic from the get-go (which could be said about this entire album). It works as both political allegory and a treatise on romantic and sexual obsession. Marsh initially heard the song as the former, even though it was inspired by more personal events: the aforementioned dissolution of Sting’s marriage. (In hindsight, though, Sting has come to agree more with Marsh’s interpretation.) However one hears it, “Every Breath You Take” remains a haunting, enduring work, a standout of The Police’s catalogue and a compositional high point for Sting.

“King of Pain”

Another haunting track that went Top 10 (peak position: No. 3 on the U.S. Top 40). The lyrics make more sense within the context of Sting’s volatile emotional state at the time, but it’s the feeling and the sound of “King of Pain” that carries it: the reverb on Stewart Copeland’s drums, the minor key piano opening coupled with Andy Summers’ janky guitar pluckings, the song’s upbeat final chorus in which Sting joyously declares “I will always be king of pain!” A broody, contemplative miracle from start to finish.

“Wrapped Around Your Finger”

Yet another pensive earworm, but also another Top 10 hit for the band (peak position: No. 8 on the U.S. Top 40). This is the one where Sting works out the power dynamics of the song’s vindictive apprentice finally one-upping his master (he called it a “spiteful song about turning the tables on someone who had been in charge” in a 1985 interview for the now-defunct Musician magazine). Once again, though, the strength is in the atmospherics: Andy Summers’ distant, echoey guitar part moves through the song like a snake, and Sting’s melody is one of the most tenacious he’s ever written.

“Tea in the Sahara”

This is the real sneak preview of what Sting’s soon-to-be solo career would be like: earnest and a little self-important, but sonically and musically ambitious. Despite this song’s literary origins (it’s inspired by a Paul Bowles novel), it feels like a cool breeze that provides respite from the thick melancholy on the rest of the side. It’s airy and has a bit of grand, cinematic sweep, but is also a deeply weird find on a hit album that sold over 8 million copies worldwide. But, then again, that’s how good The Police were: they could get away with a track like this on the biggest album of their career.

“Murder by Numbers”

A true bonus track: it was only originally available on the cassette release, not the vinyl LP. I had the vinyl version growing up, and consequently didn’t hear this track until years later. I never sought it out because, for me, side two of Synchronicity was already perfect as it was. But, this song does add a little kick, and is more of a proper final track. One can hear the band’s jazz chops more obviously, and they sound more relaxed here than at any other point on the album. It’s up to the listener to decide which of the final two songs is the actual closer.

Stanley Donen: Full of Joy

When Stanley Donen died late last month, the world lost one of the last remaining film directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was almost never mentioned in the same sentence with his peers from that hallowed era – Hitchcock, Hawks, Huston, Welles, Chaplin, Wilder, Kazan, to name a few – probably because he specialized in a genre that has seldom been taken seriously: the big-budget movie musical. I dare say, however, that he was, in his own way, just as talented, accomplished, and influential as his more revered colleagues. After all, he did co-direct one of the universally acknowledged greatest films of all time, a rare distinction for a musical.

One look at Donen’s filmography reveals his strengths and interests, best summarized by Tad Friend of The New Yorker in a 2003 profile of the director: “He made the world of champagne fountains and pillbox hats look enchanting, which is much harder than it sounds.” The signature stars of Donen’s most well-known films – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn – exemplify that ethos of charming, witty refinement perfectly.

But, a closer look at Donen’s films also reveals another overarching theme: joy, of all stripes, as evidenced by some of my favorite moments from his films:

“You’re All the World to Me,” Royal Wedding (1951)

The musical number that personifies the phrase “movie magic.” It’s got everything, starting with Fred Astaire’s Tom Bowen being so in love that he momentarily turns into Spider-Man. Donen and Astaire do such an incredible job on this number that the audience never thinks twice about it being completely stylistically different from the rest of the movie. Instead, it is simply proof positive that once the singing and dancing start, anything can happen in a musical. It’s genre that is built for this kind of whimsy, and Donen clearly loves that.

“Good Morning,” Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Here is Donen the craftsman showing off in his own subtle way: with terrific framing and composition, great camera movement, and a minimum of cuts. Donen uses maximum shot lengths in order to let the performers fully do their thing, and the choreography complements both them and the plot. Every move that Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor make here is appropriate for this particular point in the story. This is the joy of watching three top-notch triple threats in peak form.

“Make ‘Em Laugh,” Singin’ in the Rain

A musical number that perfectly introduces and defines a character. We know exactly who Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo is after this, and we carry that knowledge with us for the rest of the movie: anytime he shows up, we know he could potentially be this funny, nimble, and charming at any moment. It’s no coincidence that this number is both inventive and hilarious and also tailored to O’Connor’s strengths. This is another moment from the Donen filmography where we revel in the joy of watching a expert performer operating at the highest level.

“Sunday Jumps,” Royal Wedding

My mom’s first question after I told her I’d recently watched this movie again: “Is that the one where he dances with the hat rack?” Please note that she did not ask “Is that the one where he dances on the ceiling?” That’s how good this number is. Donen and Fred Astaire take a potentially lame idea – dancing solo with a room full of inanimate objects – and activate it the fullest. This is a prime example of Donen’s and Astaire’s inventiveness, and another great illustration of character development through dance: Astaire’s Tom Bowen is both resourceful and a workaholic.

Jo Stockton’s Bohemian Dance, Funny Face (1957)

There are so many reasons why Funny Face is one of Donen’s best musicals, and most of them can be found in this number. Yet again, we have a dance that is tailored to a performer’s strengths, and also defines character. Audrey Hepburn’s Jo Stockton is thrilled to be out in Paris meeting the bohemian intelligentsia, and this dance is how she expresses that. It’s a great showcase for both Hepburn’s latent dance skills and her goofy sense of humor. Plus, the mise-en-scene is off the charts.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another highlight from Funny Face: two of the greatest shots of Audrey Hepburn ever put on film. Donen clearly loved working with A-list movie stars, and often did everything he could to make sure they looked their glamorous best. I would bet that no one ever looked as fabulous in any of his movies as Hepburn does here. Case in point: skip forward to the 3:29 point in this number and the 5:53 point in this sequence, and you will see Hepburn being even more photogenic and iconic than usual. (She must have liked working with Donen, as well: they went on to make two more movies together.)