If Stakes Is High came out today, it’d have a sticker on the cover trumpeting the J Dilla-produced title track and cameo appearance from Mos Def, but back in 1996, those guys were largely unknown. Instead, De Le Soul staked its fourth album on nothing but its own name and ambitions, having parted ways with its longtime producer Prince Paul. Released right on the cusp of hip-hop’s bling era, Stakes Is High made no concessions to mainstream commercial success, instead spending an hour basically lecturing its audience.
The stakes, De La seemed to be saying, were high not just for them, but for hip-hop in general—indeed for the entire world. On the album’s first single, “Stakes Is High,” Trugoy the Dove begins his verse by listing nine things he was sick of: “bitches shakin’ asses…talkin’ about blunts…Versace glasses...slang...half-ass award shows…name brand clothes…R&B bitches over bullshit tracks…cocaine and crack [and] swoll’ head rappers” (2Pac was offended, taking a little heard shot at De La on his track “Against All Odds”).
The skits between songs, previously one of the most fun elements of a De La album, are depressing slices of life like a redneck describing why he hates rap music and a homeless man (Robert Crumb’s brother, as it turns out) describing life on the street. Not surprisingly, this didn’t sell. But Stakes Is High has its fans, including, most notably, Prince Paul himself, who, in keeping with his self-deprecating disposition, says it’s his favorite De La album.