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De La Soul 

The Grind Date (Sanctuary)

If LL Cool J's most recent album seemed to prove that hip-hop wouldn't allow its veteran stars to age gracefully, this is the rebuttal. Largely MIA since 2001, De La Soul has still seen growth to its reputation as patron saint of the burgeoning hip-hop underground. So get past the first couple of tracks on The Grind Date, whose anger at the way the game is now being played -- "Y'all care anymore about this hip-hop, man?" asks "Much More" -- leads to an uncharacteristic spray of cuss words. The majority of the Long Island trio's seventh album is a more dignified -- and entertaining -- rebuke of the crassness that now dominates the mainstream.

Fittingly, the underground that De La helped nurture all those years returns the favor on The Grind Date. Producers like Jay Dee, 9th Wonder, and Madlib, who oversaw the clattering, antimaterialistic first single "Shopping Carts," provide the group with left-of-center beats to match the thoughtful meditations on hip-hop culture and De La's place in it. "No disrespect to Diddy," remarks "Come on Down" good-naturedly, "just settin' it straight." What's missing, unsurprisingly, is the spark of genius that originally made the group great. But The Grind Date shows that De La Soul is far from ground down.

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