De La Soul has been around for 12 years, recorded three great albums (including one undisputed rap classic in its debut), and still has more artistic integrity than the entire Ruff Ryders and No Limit posses combined. That its fifth album, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, deliberately plays itself out over a series of tough, modern rhymes without sounding at all foolish in the process is another laudable feat. In a way, this is hip-hop's first step toward adulthood. When Posdnous, Dave (formerly Trugoy), and Maseo unspooled cartoon psychedelics on 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising, current rap trends -- big-ass gold chains, street stylin', etc. -- were totally ignored; 11 years later, the guys are still doing things their own way (though the overload of cameos from the likes of Busta Rhymes, Xzibit, two-thirds of the Beastie Boys, and Chaka Khan is a whim that doesn't quite suit these individual rhymers).
Art Official Intelligence is simultaneously playful and serious, a treatise on the state of hip-hop from three guys who are serious about playtime. Gone, regrettably, is longtime producer Prince Paul, who levitated and contributed to the craziness of the grooves. The new-century De La Soul is a bit bulkier, even throwing down some hard rhymes (with at least one unfortunate "faggot" spouted by guest pest Freddie Foxxx). This isn't the De La Soul of 3 Feet High (1991's De La Soul Is Dead blew up that myth), but it isn't the group that made the scrawny Stakes Is High four years ago, either. Reportedly the first in a three-album series, Art Official Intelligence takes conventions (the club jam, the booty call, the shout out) and flips them sideways ("Oooh," featuring Redman, slinks along to a sly R&B beat that manages to sound nostalgic while still very much of the moment). Art Official Intelligence is part tribute to the underground in which these cellar dwellers reside and part acknowledgment of the mainstream they still so gleefully ignore.