I have a lot of history with 3 Feet High and Rising. The first time I heard it was in 1989, when I was shaking off the shackles of the rotten hair metal that had bound me throughout my teen years. Since I'd never owned a rap album and this one was getting rave reviews, I decided to give it a shot. I played it once, hated it, and sold it.
Ten years later, a friend of mine played it in his car, and I was floored. I couldn't believe I'd hated it, because it was awesome! My friend bought me a copy for my birthday, I played it once, and then promptly filed it away on the shelf until I sold all of my CDs in a fit of post dot-com desperation.
Nearly 10 more years have gone by, and 3 Feet High and Rising has found its way into my ears once again. My life has taken some unexpected turns since I last heard De La Soul, and I'm glad to have the album back. I think the third time may be the charm. Indeed, three is the magic number.
The album's not perfect. The skits are annoying, the game show theme is stupid, and a few of the songs are weak. The rest of it, though? Wow. It's amazing. The fun stuff is genuinely fun, the serious stuff has some real depth, and there is an intelligence that is always present but never obnoxious.
I think what's most interesting about the album is how it shatters certain false perceptions about the late '80s. There seems to be some kind of cultural revisionist history that portrays a certain happiness and innocence during the Reagan and early Bush I years. Everyone wore day-glo colors and had funny hair, we listened to kitschy songs by new wave bands with silly names, and black people were simply modern Stepin Fetchits who hadn't yet corrupted white youth with the horrors of gangsta rap.
It's complete bullshit, of course. The '80s were marred by the threat of the Cold War and Reaganomics on a national level and the realities of AIDS and crack on the local level. White flight had peaked, well-paying blue-collar jobs were growing more scarce by the day, and countless communities throughout Baltimore (and every other major American city) had become ravaged by the one-two punch of crack and ass-backwards social policies.
What's interesting about 3 Feet High and Rising is that in between all the sexy things that "Jenifa Taught Me" and the positivity of the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age," there are some harsh statements about the realities of life in the worst parts of the worst cities in America. There is wisdom on this album, and it is just as meaningful today as it was 20 years ago.
(The EPFL version of this CD comes with a bonus CD that has B-sides and alternate versions and such.)
The packaging was too unique and identifiable. The culture of 1989 couldn't handle the contradictions of De La Soul, so they were pigeonholed as some kind of neo-hippie, peace-loving beatniks who were all style and no substance. It's not a flaw on the packaging as much as it's a flaw of our culture, but it still limited the group in a way they shouldn't have been limited. Of course, it also pushed them to do De La Soul Is Dead, so maybe the packaging should get an extra half-library-card for that.
Listen if you like: Hip-hop that thinks more than it postures.
If it were food, it'd be: A cold bottle of grape soda on a hot summer day in the city.