Longtime fans of De La Soul will experience a distinct feeling of déjà vu listening to First Serve, a concept album from the venerable hip-hop outfit’s Posdonus and Dave that finds the veteran MCs slipping inside the skin of hungry young rappers Jacob “Pop Life” Barrow and Deen Whitter respectively. Conceptually, structurally, and thematically, the album bears an unmistakable resemblance to A Prince Among Thieves, the 1999 concept album from the duo’s former producer and mentor Prince Paul. But where Prince Among Thieves was a classic showbiz-vs.-crime sonic melodrama with an overflowing cast of guest stars, First Serve is a more small-scale, self-contained opus (with production from French duo Chokolate and Khalid and guests only in the album’s handful of skits) about a pair of middle-class college graduates whose friendship and partnership are tested not by the temptations of the underworld, but rather by the pressures of a merciless music industry.
First Serve is a throwback in the truest sense, travelling a familiar but satisfying arc. The idealistic protagonists go from the infectious hunger of “Opening Credits” and “The Work” through the joyous celebration of “We Made It,” a sing-along Saturday roller-skate jam with a big pop sound and monster hook, on to the acrimony of “Clash Symphony” and “Pop Life,” before ending on an upbeat, conciliatory note. Compared to Prince Among Thieves, a 1930s Warner Bros. melodrama on wax, the stakes are suspiciously low on First Serve: It’s a middle-class saga of friendship tested and reaffirmed in the white-hot glare of the hip-hop spotlight from two Hall Of Famers looking back on their careers with obvious fondness and nostalgia. It’s a breezy, fun exercise in role-playing and escapism from casually assured artists in complete control of their craft, and it thoroughly realizes its modest ambition.