4 Stars

We live in the age of the producer.

At least as far as hip hop is concerned, it’s more important how you sound than what you actually say. And for most “socially-conscious” rappers, it seems impossible to meld good beats with strong rhymes, so we are instead left with either Talib Kweli glowing over mediocre drums or Pharell rapping about being a “nice dude” over incredibly cool synthesizers.

Yet, just as hip hop seemed to be slipping into a commercialized abyss (if it isn’t already down there), 2004 has given us reason to rejoice. Foreign Exchange, Cee-lo and MF Doom (throw in Kanye West as well) have all released classic albums this year that combine both top-notch music and introspective lyrics. It is finding a balance between the two that produces the truly great works, and De La Soul have found that same balance on The Grind Date.

It is obvious that the trio recognized the importance of sounding fresh in this day and age as they enlisted a squadron of the very best underground producers. Super hot Madlib, Jay Dee and 9th Wonder are the stars, contributing heavily to De La Soul’s latest reinvention.

The title track is the centerpiece for the album, filled with a glorious hook that is so much fun it can barely contain itself within the song. The soulful feel of the beat is complimented by some classic lines, “I was raised in those blue-collar things/having white-collar dreams/cause I see what it means to know the meek shall inherit the earth/but don’t forget, the poor are the ones who inherit the debt.”

This is the most consistent and best- produced album of the year, but the number of great guest MCs almost rivals the star-studded production. Ghostface continues his success in 2004 on this album, and Common just explodes on “Days of Our Lives,” raising the anticipation for his next record. Even Flava Flav and Spike Lee have their part on De La’s seventh studio album.

MF Doom lends his verbal expertise to the insane street beat on “Rock Co.Kane Flow” and once again proves he is among the most skilled MCs around. The song rises and falls on church choir-like humming while the crew points out how great they all are.

Since 1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising, De La Soul have been among the elite in the hip-hop community, but this is by far their smartest, tightest and grittiest release in the last 10 years. It joins the superb company of great hip hop recorded this year and reassures us that the genre is here to stay, no matter how many cringe-worthy duets Nelly does with Tim McGraw.

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