Removing rapper-producer-DJ Vincent ‘Maseo’ Mason from the equation (no hard feelings, Pasemaster), ‘First Serve’ tells the fictional story of Jacob ‘Pop Life’ Barrow (Plug One) and Deen Whitter (Plug Two), two aspiring emcees racked with dreams of becoming famous rappers that reach far beyond Mama Deen’s basement. It’s rare for an LP to truly engage in anything resembling a story these days, particularly in the current single-driven climate of hip-hop, but the album nourishes that empty spot nicely.
The 16-track offering from the two Plugs exhibits impressive cohesiveness above all. Not only do the individual track names map the chapters in Barrow and Whitter’s wishful journey, but the sonic landscape shifts in similar vein to a film score. Ensembles of crashing, orchestral sequences wedded with quintessential hip-hop drum loops capture that raw and ambitious energy of the young rhymers through the first few selections like ‘Opening Credits’ and ‘The Work’.
As the duo eventually strike lucky with the success of their basement by-product first single midway through, ‘First Serve’ follows suit, taking a turn to celebratory funk and disco production, courtesy of French beatsmiths, Chokolate and Khalid (who claim the entire of the album’s production credits). Like many a familiar movie cliché, success often leads to ladies (pretty ones), and as you play out the script’s romance in your head, mellow harmonies suddenly inhabit your listening space.
Remaining in character for the full feature (which is worrying, at times), you can’t help but feel that ‘First Serve’ is as much an acting experiment than it is a musical concept for Pos and Dave. That’s not to say the lyrical value has declined; simply that the Plugs’ storytelling trumps that classic D.A.I.S.Y. (da inner soul, y’all) disposition in their temporarily revamped identities as Barrow and Whitters. And with zero guest appearances, the album is vulnerable to becoming stale for those yet to fall in love with the trio’s back catalogue.
Despite boasting consistency at a solid chord throughout, don’t come looking to ‘First Serve’ for De La Soul’s comeback release. Consider it a curious concept explored by two-thirds of the group that perhaps shouldn’t distract you from revisiting ‘The Grind Date’.