An Ode to De La Soul's 'Stakes Is High'

With their entire catalog up for download today, the big rush will be for De La Soul neophytes scrambling to catch up on the classic shit and for nerds digging into unearthed rarities. But I hope Stakes Is High is not overlooked in the downloading bonanza

Feb 14 2014, 8:10pm

When I … first heard … Stakes Is High … I was laid up in an opiate haze, recovering from wisdom tooth surgery. It was my freshman year of college in the spring of 2000 [Ed: This was 100 years ago, Skinny]. When I wasn’t throwing up, I was playing Donkey Kong 64. Stakes would become one of my favorite rap albums of all time, one of maybe five that never leaves my iPhone. I don’t love it as much as my dude Cadence Weapon, who has the album logo tatted on his forearm. Unlike 99% of other rap-themed tattoos, it looks great.

There is a scene in one of the “new” Star Wars movies which stuck with me. I don’t remember who was fighting who, or even which movie it was in, but the good guys were losing a large, prominent battle against the bad guys. But then loads of ships show up with an army of clones to help out the good guys, who eventually win the battle. The catch is that the army of clones are the iconic white-clad Empire Stormtroopers. Although they are on the side of “good” at this point, by the time Luke Skywalker comes around they are the embodiment of evil to everyone living in that particular galaxy far, far away.

This is a decent analogy for the climate of hip-hop in 1996, into which De La Soul released the very curmudgeonly Stakes Is High. The rap game was changing rapidly and battles—both philosophical and literal—were brewing. Everybody struggled to find the right balance between the charts and the streets, between gangster reality and positivity, between broke and rich, not to mention between Bad Boy and Death Row. With careers and lives at stake and a chaotic path ahead, hip-hop focused on short-term survival despite the threat of long-term consequences.

Stakes Is High left no doubt where De La stood on any of these issues. It’s a fiercely traditional, New York boom-bap hip-hop album that sold poorly, mocked Puffy’s cheap production and earned a diss from 2Pac. Its conservatism is a departure from a trio of weirdos who got famous by pushing rap to its creative limits; rather than embrace the future and have fun with it, the trio pissed and moaned about how it’s wasn’t 1993 anymore. Accordingly, while Stakes is well-regarded, it’s not exactly a fan favorite.

But not to me!

I love the name of the album. It’s iconic, especially when paired with the instantly-recognizible typeface from the cover art. It’s a simple statement but it’s so powerful: your actions have consequences. Even while joining a chorus of voices saying the same thing, De La stood out. Their album title explained why they cared. Stakes is high. Shit actually matters.

This sentiment is best expressed on “Brakes,” which takes Kurtis Blow’s old-school jam “The Breaks” and gives it a tragic, sardonic upgrade. Blow’s version is a tour through some bummer moments you might have encountered in 1979. Your girl runs off to Japan, the IRS wants to know why you claimed your cat as a dependant and you got charged for long-distance calls to Brazil. Dangit! In De La’s version, you get HIV, shot at, robbed by your crackhead son, and get smacked with a surprise acid trip. High stakes indeed.

And then there is the title track (produced incidentally by a young up-and-comer from Detroit named James Yancey). “Stakes Is High” (the song) is the exception that proves the rule for complaining about jiggy rap destroying the black community and/or America. It is so earnest, so personal, so tangibly frustrated that it becomes something bigger than just more “old man yells at cloud” rap. Dave starts out personal and non-judgemental, noting that he’s sick of bitches shaking ass and Versace glasses, whether or not they are bad for “the culture.” He’s just personally tired of that shit. For Posdanous, the laundry list of problems quickly outgrows misogyny and materialism, turning into a full-on lament about how hard it is out there. Neighborhoods are now just hoods cuz nobody’s neighbors, just animals surviving with that animal behavior. Life, after all, can get all up in your ass, baby. You better work it out.

(Even for people who have at least as many rights as a meteor (???), Stakes Is High is an important and relatable sentiment that has stayed with me. Privilege often takes the form of stakes, of margins of error. Stakes is not high for those who can escape vehicular homicide charges by claiming “affluenza.” Stakes is not high for anyone who successfully claims innocence under a “stand your ground” law. Stakes is not high for anyone who has never struggled to afford insurance.)

Musically, the album hardly needs defending. Even without Prince Paul, the production is excellcent. It’s wall-to-wall 95 BPM head-nod shit, with hard drums and weird touches that show how the crew was paying attention when Paul was working his magic. The album is full of quotables, not the least of which is “I bet your ass is darker than a Mobb Deep track.” A young Mos Def shows up sounding more like Ma$e than anyone would have admitted at the time, and Common recaps his entire career in 16 bars (plus bonus homophobia!).

With their entire catalog up for download today, the big rush will be for De La Soul neophytes scrambling to catch up on the classic shit and for nerds digging into unearthed rarities. But I hope Stakes Is High is not overlooked in the downloading bonanza.

Skinny Friedman took time from yelling at clouds to pen this. He's on Twitter - @skinny412