As the indefatigable front men of De La Soul, Posdnuos and Dave (Plugs 1 and 2) have consistently deployed colorful personas and zany stories to deliver both cerebral concepts and scathing critiques of the music industry. So, it should come as no surprise that hip-hop’s most imaginative pair of MCs would adopt alter egos to star in an album length narrative chronicling the rise, fall and redemption of an earnest young rap duo. First Serve succeeds largely on the strength of the Plugs, still perfectly in tune, and seamlessly fusing the impish playfulness of earlier De La with the world-weary insight of later offerings.
First Serve opens with the youthful exuberance of Jacob (Pos) and Deen (Dave) trading rhymes in a basement, fueled by blunt smoke and dreams of stardom. “Pushin’ Aside, Pushin’ Along” soars atop a driving piano loop and sped-up vocal sample, unfolding as an anthem of defiance against deterrents to a dream. The propulsive “Work” hits like a crushing upper cut as the the second half of the opening one-two punch, with the two MCs trading lines with the vigor of hungry new jacks and the precision of seasoned vets.
The album moves Jacob and Deen briskly through the backbreaking grind of dues being paid (“Small Disasters”), to the jubilation of inking the first record deal (“We Made it”) with the nuanced mix of humor and humanity that has always defined the Plugs at their best. But, as any viewer of Behind the Music (or the recent A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life, The Travels of ATCQ) has come to expect, the good times and fun rhymes soon come to a crashing halt, as inner turmoil begins to sabatoge the group. The blues tinged “Book of Life” and the cinematic “Clash Symphony” combine for the album’s musical and narrative climax, the former a nuanced recounting of a crumbling friendship, the latter an exchange of venomous disses between former partners.
Both musically, and thematically, First Serve tails off a bit in the third act. The production–handled exclusively by French beatsmiths Chokolate and Khalid–rarely stands out on its own merits but generally compliments the mood and propels the story forward in the early going. But, it begins to lag on the final laps. Generic electronic instrumentation makes what should be triumphant moments of redemption feel coldly sterile on “Tennis” and “Top Chefs.” “Move ‘Em In, Move ‘Em Out,” presented as the fictional group’s comeback smash, plays more like the last desperate grasps for relevancy of a group whose era has passed.
Still, the whole of First Serve is greater than the sum of its parts, and the album’s crisp pace, infectious energy and playful humor make it an easy listen and a simple pleasure. That’s a bigger accomplishment than it may seem for two MCs whose legends are built largely on complexity.
– Jeff Harvey