On De La Soul and Elif Batuman


The Review’s Review

A still from De La Souls music video for Stakes is High.

I wanted to recommend a different song this week, but it seemed like every news story, headline, and push notification I encountered kept nudging my consciousness into some area within my brain that contains lyrics about firearms, some mental storage locker I rarely open: “I gets down like brothers are found ducking from bullets / Gun control means using both hands in my land, where it’s all about the cautious living.” Kelvin Mercer, aka Posdnuos, rapped those lines on De La Soul’s 1996 single “Stakes Is High.” The eponymous album, Stakes Is High, was a kind of rebuke against the first glimmers of hip-hop’s big money “shiny suit” era and the hackneyed materialism and narrative clichés that came to be associated with it. Posdnuos and his partners Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur and Vincent “Maseo” Mason, were tired of mafioso rap, “video vixens,” weed talk, brags about luxury gear. Dave’s verse, a list of the things that make him unwell, cleverly flips what it means to be “ill” in the hip-hop sense: 

I’m sick of bitches shaking asses 
I’m sick of talking about blunts
Sick of Versace glasses
Sick of slang
Sick of half-assed award shows
Sick of name-brand clothes 
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks 
Cocaine and crack which brings sickness to blacks 
Sick of swole-head rappers with they sickening raps 
Clappers and gats making the whole sick world collapse 
The facts are getting sick, even sicker perhaps
I stick a bush to make a bundle to escape the synapse

Although Dave’s delivery is fierce, this litany of mid-nineties rap’s most overdone iconographies has a lulling effect; as flashy as it is, the music he calls out in that list is thematically listless, of no real consequence. It’s all about the minutiae of the moment, the micro-timeline of rap stardom. There is no consideration of the future. On this song, De La Soul considers a more expansive timeline: the fate of meteors, the trajectory of bullets, but also the lifelines of children. The Stakes is High album cover is a black-and-white photo of a group of kids: the kind of gathering Kathy Fish references in her flash fiction story “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” (2017), which has been recirculating after the Uvalde massacre—“Humans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target … A group of schoolchildren is a target.” The song’s music video illustrates the perplexing apathy of the grown-up world: the trio vacillate between performing the song with brio and hanging out lethargically, letting the external world dictate their energy levels. Except for a mural in the background of one scene and a couple shots of a school bus, there are no images of children in the clip; it features adult angst and malaise. 

The video is framed by the group’s appearance as guests on The Maury Povich Show. They’re there to discuss how much rap music “dictates real life,” and vice versa, ways “to keep it real.” Shots of Povich posing questions to them on a studio set are intercut with clips in which the men carry out everyday tasks: folding laundry, cutting grass, raking leaves, buffing a car, washing the dishes, falling asleep with a newspaper in hand, playing basketball with friends. American daytime talk shows, especially those that aired in the nineties, often showcased the country’s worst fears, or otherwise the most provocative topics in the national discourse. Rap was one of them, but so was white supremacy and domestic terrorism; Stakes Is High was released just fifteen months after the Oklahoma City bombing. By appearing on this faux-episode, De La Soul commented on their public perception while also situating themselves as participants in the spectacle, and as possible consumers of it. 

This music video presents the kind of melancholy known to those familiar with the daytime TV bloc: court shows, commercials for class-action lawsuits, accident lawyers, and structured settlements. If De La Soul were at home during the daytime in 1996, as this video suggests, they probably watched a lot of Maury. Chronically consuming that programming—much of it about litigation and justice denied—can leave you enervated; in the video, the men appear as though drugged on downers. Their movements are frequently lackadaisical; even as they rap, with urgency, about the destabilizing nature of living in a violent world, they seem out of it. They traipse through a soccer field as Posdnuos relays a harrowing image of suicide: “People go through pain and still don’t gain positive contact / Just like my main man who got others cleaning up his physical influence / His mind got congested, he got the nine and blew it.” At the end of the sequence, Dave claps his feet together. Are we in a musical, or some other space of suspended disbelief (or belief)? A scene in which Dave rides a mechanical bull in Times Square further emphasizes the dissonance between what viewers see and what they hear. Against a J Dilla loop of Ahmad Jamal’s anthemic “Swahililand,” an epic jazz composition marked by escalating conga patter and the drama of a stabbing piano and horn riff, De La Soul play smoothed-out soothsayers, anesthetized by media and life’s recurring brutality. But that’s the point: stakes are high, and many people are higher, or else checked out, like the napping, newspaper-holding Maseo, who is, one can infer, both literally and figuratively tired of the news. How utterly devastating that, in the era of shootings at nail salons, grocery stores, and schools, “Gun control means using both hands in my land” is as true as it ever was, wherever in our land you might be.

—Niela Orr, contributing editor

At the start of Elif Batuman’s Either/Or, the narrator asks a simple question: What is “good” fiction? Selin, a sophomore in college and aspiring writer who has just enrolled in her first-ever philosophy class, spends the book looking for an answer. Although she doesn’t find one, Batuman herself does: if Either/Or itself is indeed “good,” then good fiction, perhaps, is what gives us a new, formally-determined awareness through which to perceive our lives. In this novel—the sequel to her debut, The Idiot—Batuman captures life in its shape as a chance encounter. Plot points mingle in surprising ways with Selin’s interiority—her attendance at a literary party leads directly into her thoughts on Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary; from there, she considers her parents’ failed marriage and the socioeconomic status of her roommates. This sense of randomness is mirrored by the book’s larger arc, which leads us, through instances of supposed happenstance, from one romantic misencounter to the next, in Cambridge, then in Turkey. With a wry wink at the reader, Selin begins the semester by picking up a copy of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or for a course titled merely “Chance;” throughout the book, Batuman foregrounds the metafictional nature of a novel which links contingency and craft, life and literature. Selin notes that Balzac once called chance “the greatest novelist in the world.” In its radically random-seeming structure, Either/Or is a novel so artfully composed that it serves as an answer to the troubling question with which Selin follows her reference to Balzac: “How was one to be so artful that the end product seemed to be free of art?”

—Camille Jacobson, business manager