In a Surprise, De La Soul Plays Things Straight Up

The Long Island-based group caused quite a stir in the hip-hop community last year when it announced that its fifth album would be a three-disc affair. Now scaled down to the standard single-album format, "Art Official Intelligence" (due in stores Tuesday) may surprise longtime De La Soul fans for other reasons.

Through their first four albums and in appearances with other artists, the three--Posdnuos, Trugoy (Dave) and Maseo--have been one of hip-hop's most innovative crews. But most of the songs on the new album are devoid of the out-there, experimental lyrics of their 1989 landmark "3 Feet High and Rising," or the biting, insightful commentary on the music industry of 1991's "De La Soul Is Dead" and 1996's "Stakes Is High."

Instead, the 17 cuts are more or less straight-up hip-hop songs. They're often enjoyable, such as the dance-club-friendly "Copa (Cabanga)," the old-school-flavored "Squat!" (with Mike D and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys) and the catchy "Oooh" single with Redman.

But De La Soul's music has always been more than enjoyable--it's been lasting. For the first time in its career, De La Soul has made just another hip-hop album rather than a hip-hop event.

*** Kool Keith, "Matthew," Funky Ass/Threshold.

On his latest demented aural episode, the rap eccentric delivers another round of his seemingly aimless but nonetheless engaging rants about his superior rapping style, cartoon-like escapades and other random subjects. Keith--who plays the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday--is one of the few rappers who doesn't always rhyme lyrics, which can be somewhat awkward considering that his narratives are convoluted to begin with. As with Keith's recent work as Dr. Dooom and on other projects, the music on "Matthew" sounds disjointed, eerie and as out-there as Keith's stories. His fans would expect nothing less, as half of the fun of Kool Keith's music is trying to figure it all out.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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