Is 'AOI: Bionix' De La Soul's Most Underrated Album?
By Stereo Williams
By the early 2000s, De La Soul had already cemented themselves as one of Hip-Hop's most forward-pushing acts. That had been evident from the very beginning: 1989s' 3 Feet High & Rising has always been a staggering debut, announcing the Long Island trio as rap game auteurs and cemented the producing bonafides of Prince Paul. De La Soul Is Dead followed in 1991, and featured the trio of Posdnous, Trugoy The Dove and Maseo bucking against the misunderstood whimsy of their first album while maintaining the group's idiosyncrasies. With it's effortless melding of jazz and Hip-Hop, alongside a reverential spirit for Black music's heritage and their maturing worldview, Buhloone Mindstate was critically acclaimed when it was released in 1993, but further indicated a commercial decline. 1996's Stakes Is High has forever been hailed as a landmark, and set the table for De La Soul post-Y2K: hitting artistic home-runs even as the rap mainstream seems to not notice.
With 2000s stellar Art.Official.Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, the group released the first part of what was expected to be a conceptual trilogy. The album saw De La re-embrace some of their early quirks while pushing themselves in sonic directions, in the form of productions from J. Dilla, Rockwilder and Supa Dave West; as well as guest appearances from Busta Rhymes, Redman and Chaka Khan. A year later, the trio dropped it's follow-up, AOI: Bionix.
By the early 2000s, the divide between what was considered "commercial" and "underground" was hyper-discussed and artists were being presented as warring factions. But De La Soul wasn't about to be rebranded or stereotyped as anyone's "backpack rap." The album opening title track makes it clear: this is "better, stronger, faster" De La. The Supa Dave West-produced banger is the group sounding invigorated and impassioned, with Maseo serving as your guide into this second chapter of AOI, as Pos makes it clear that De La Soul isn't stuck under anyone's "underground" tag.
The planned third AOI installment never materialized, but, as evidence by Maseo's shout-out on the title track, the original vision was that it would be a showcase of "some deejay shit." The project would eventually be abandoned as the group shifted to 2004s The Grind Date. Nonetheless, AOI: III would linger in the ether for years. Ten years after ...Bionix, Maseo was still looking forward to it's possible release. "Definitely looking to put out a new album,” he told HipHopDX in 2011. “We’re definitely gonna come out with Art Official Intelligence III – the fans have been yearning for that."
Accompanied with a glossy video, "Baby Phat" is one of the best De La Soul singles, in any era. A winning hook from Devin The Dude laces the Supa Dave West beat, as Pos and Dave show love to the beauty of thick women: "Your frame holds appeal in the everyday/World, and conceal is not the way." Posdnous offers one of his most compellingly introspective verses on the moody "Held Down," as guest vocalist Cee-Lo Green emotionally turns the proceedings into a Baptist church on Sunday morning. In classic De La fashion, the song transitions into the first "Rev. Do Good" sketch, featuring producer Tony Hightower as the titular man of the cloth.
De La Soul's maturation into master craftsmen is undeniable. Throughout ...Bionix, the group's confidence is brimming. Regardless of whatever superficial tag they may have been saddled with, they never lost sight of their creative voice or the standard of excellence they'd established. And their versatility is apparent. A song like the self-produced "Pawn Star" is a perfect example of the group's ironic sense of humor, going as lewd and ridiculous as a thousand other acts in a way that evokes parody; then tapping a Slick Rick for the very next track, the legendarily horny and hilarious Ruler himself.
Upon release in December 2001, AOI: Bionix was met with acclaim. If the reception wasn't quite as enthusiastic as it had been for it's predecessor, there was still considerable goodwill surrounding the latest from De La Soul, taking note of the group's smoothed-out, mature sound. Pitchfork wrote that "AOI: Bionix takes a belt sander to hip-hop's rougher edges, resulting in refinement, sophistication and undeniable accessibility." HipHopDX gushed "Maybe it’s their ten plus years of experience that’s shown them how to make a successful album. And this is no exception." "The group's members seem content to serve as kindly hip-hop elder statesmen," wrote A.V. Club. "And on AOI: Bionix, they carry out that role with dignity and unimpeachable integrity."
An almost underrated aspect of 2000s De La Soul's consistently strong discography is the production of Supa Dave West. He'd fallen into the Native Tongues orbit in the 1990s. "Somewhere in the end of ’96 I had a deal with Q-Tip’s Museum Music label that was signed to Elektra," Dave said in 2016. "My group was called Hot Sauce. Basically it didn’t happen ‘cause Q-Tip’s label didn’t work out. Phife had some music of mine and Phife’s manager was Fudge who is Dave from De La’s first cousin. One trip that Dave took to Phife’s crib in Atlanta with Fudge he was just listening to my music that Phife was playing and he called me out of the blue that same day."
He helmed two of ...Mosaic Thump's best tracks, but Supa Dave West's presence is much more felt on ...Bionix. Here, his chemistry with the group really comes to the forefront; on standouts like "Baby Phat" and the Wings-sampling "Simply," his knack for grooves and hooky productions melds perfectly with De La's perspective and established sonic norms. The latter track features Dave opening things by paying tribute to the always-distinct flow of Greg Nice, as Supa Dave laces the group with the "Simply Christmastime"-interpolating groove and Pos rails against fights that always wind up fucking up the party.
Another hightlight from Supa Dave West, the Latin flavor of "Watch Out" comes courtesy of Cal Tjader's "Mood For Milt," and Cuban musician "Perico" Hernandez. Philly Black guests on the pulsating "The Sauce," and R&B star Glenn Lewis is a lift on the soulful "Am I Worth You? (Am I Worthy Of You?)" evoking Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need Of Love Today" on the intro. It should be noted that De La embraces smoothed-out productions as organically as anyone and matured into one of rap's best commentators on love and relationships.
Yummy Bingham's vocals are a highlight of ...Bionix. The Queens-bred singer was originally a part of Naughty By Nature producer Kay Gee's cadre of up-and-coming artists, before landing with De La. She appears on two of the album's most R&B-laced tracks: the Kev Brown-produced, smoothed-out "Special," and single "Baby Phat." Her unique voice complements some of the best De La songs of the period, continuing in the grand tradition of scene-stealing Hip-Hop vocalists, from Blu Raspberry to the Native Tongues' own Vinia Mojica.
And lest we forget, ...Bionix features one of the greatest guest appearances from Daniel Dumile, the late, great MF DOOM. It's the closest Metal Face ever got to a mainstream hit, and it's one of the standouts on the album.
“Pos used to always tell me, ‘Man, give me the beats you would give Mobb Deep. We don’t just want what people think is De La beat,’” Jake One recalled in 2017. The beat was famously coveted throughout Hip-Hop, with 50 Cent's version becoming popular around New York City. “Before De La had recorded to it I was in the studio with Redman," Jake said. "And he just loved the beat — he played the beat for two hours straight."
It's somewhat understandable if AOI: Bionix sometimes languishes in the lower reaches of De La Soul's unimpeachable discography. 3 Feet High...broke so much ground; ...Dead is one of Hip-Hop's greatest second acts. Stakes Is High is the high water mark and it was ...Mosaic Thump that reset things for the post-Y2K rap landscape. The second installment in a rap trilogy that was never quite completed, ...Bionix may be De La Soul's most underrated album, which speaks volumes in regards to just how consistently good this trio has always been. In 2001, these L.I. brothers from no other were in the midst of a creative renaissance that sounds better with each passing year.