In 1991, Del The Funky Homosapien -- or Del tha Funky Homosapien or Del the Funkee Homosapien (or, sure, Deltron) -- came out with one of the great hip-hop debuts, with a little help from cousin Ice Cube. That album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, may have borrowed from the funk leanings of Cube's music, but it took it in a whole new direction. Del, only 18 at the time, had his strange personality fully formed, coming off as a funny but incisive counter to the gangster rap of his time. He spun his snaking rhymes about some guy named Dobalina or dark-skinned girls or some doctor named Bombay and he was equal parts wit, charm, and off-kilter quickfire flow. Despite how goofy it was, it belied is young age. When he went after mooching friends on "Sleepin' On My Couch" he felt almost like a grizzled veteran, and he swaggers all over the record with the confidence of someone who had long ago built their career.
It was an amazing first turn, but when he came back two years later with No Need For Alarm, Del was not interested in rehashing past success. He left behind the lighter, G-Funk sound of George for darker, jazzier beats. It was certainly a fish-out-of-water sound for a guy from the West Coast, since it sounded more like New York grime than California heat. The other thing that left, and the more noticeable thing, was Del's unique sense of humor. Not that No Need For Alarm isn't funny, it sure can be. But you can't feel Del smirking his way playfully through these tunes.
What you have instead is what sounds, on the surface, like a series of rap battles. "Wack M.C.'s" may be a "dedication" to lames, but it's not alone on the record. In fact, most of No Need For Alarm is Del shredding haters -- ones that may or may not exist. It's both a move for Del to convince us of his skills and superiority and a defense of the young legacy of hip-hop (something Del is constantly returning to in his career, as you can tell from his new record with Parallel Thought, Attractive Sin). He drifts away from this focus on "Boo Boo Heads" and, curiously enough, the title track, where he turns that same derision to certain women, but the singular approach Del takes on No Need For Alarm rubbed a lot of critics wrong. The album sold all right, but time has relegated it to an uneven sophomore slump, an album full of fully formed rhymes about half-cooked ideas.
The thing is, though, that No Need For Alarm is worth unpacking a bit more than all that. If Del is so keen to battle -- especially from the bully pulpit of his own album -- you'd have to wonder why. And, if you dig into Alarm a bit more, this isn't just about mic prowess. Instead, what you get is Del trying to cope with being misunderstood. He's an artist who makes a point of setting himself apart. He self identifies not as a person, but as a "homosapien" and a "funky" one at that. His raps, especially on George, are tough to follow and, in a way, unknowable. You know he can't stand Mistadobalina, but damned if you know why.
So this is what happens when you find success in eccentricity, especially at a young age. What comes shining through here is Del's love of hip-hop and his clear belief that what he does isn't strange, or shouldn't be. His challenging raps, according to him, should be the norm. That they aren't is what puzzles him on No Need For Alarm, and so he lashes out at those wack M.C.'s getting more attention than him.
At the heart of most rap braggadocio is a carefully measured ambivalence to the target. You can't care too much, because there's a cool that needs to be delivered, a way to convey the understanding that you can tear down the other guy because their work is insignificant. This is Del's starting point in a lot of these songs, particularly "Worldwide," which features Unicron from Del's Heiroglyphics crew. Early on, he claims "I gots the flow" and lets us know that no one should "dare step, you'll get your hair swept." There's a bit of a threat there, but it's a tame twist on "cap peeling" that works for a guy that can be as carefree as Del. He's not sweating fakers, until he is. At the end of his verse, he spits "I hate ya" with an unexpected amount of bile. The frustration boils over here, and you can feel Del standing up not only for himself but also for hip-hop as he sees it should be.
This moment follows "Treats for the Kiddies," the most violent of Del's battle raps, which finds him fantasizing over eating squished hearts on biscuits. No Need For Alarm has plenty of moments like this, where Del is confronted with the limitations of his skill set, where he knows that what he does isn't the stuff of musical superstardom (the way, say, his cousin's might have been). He may love and be comfortable with what he does, and truly not want to fit in, but that doesn't stop him from fuming over why that's not the case, why lesser rappers get the attention he deserves, especially when he so convincingly skewers them on, say, "Catch A Bad One." Maybe this is why he sticks to his inner circle on the album -- Ice Cube is absent here, and no one outside of Heiroglyphics guests or produces, and Del even samples himself on the opening track -- so he can show what he and his crew can do on their own.
It doesn't stop at music either. There are moments where what happens in the song spills out into real life situations. "Wrong Place," one of the best songs here, finds Del dialing back the bile at house parties and on the street. It's an indictment of gun culture, but it also once again pits Del as the one misunderstood. "I'm on the town," he raps in the second verse, "I don't frown at people, 'cause they tend to get offended." And later, he finds himself explaining to a cop that "this is my car, it isn't stolen." Del's artistic isolation turns into something bigger, something about race and class and culture, where he is misunderstood because of how he looks, not what he says. It makes him erupt in anger again, muttering to the cop "I hope you catch a slug straight in your colon," but you also know that Del will not be the one wielding a gun at the officer or anyone else.
This frustration and misunderstanding also bleeds into how he deals with women. "Boo Boo Heads" falls firmly in the long-standing, problematic misogyny that permeates hip-hop. He claims to want women dead. He objectifies them. For Del, it's a somewhat unconvincing hat to wear, actually, as this type of anger and violence seems to go against everything else he does. But it's where all these ill wishes -- "I want you dead," he repeats early on -- that is most interesting. It starts with Del (according to him) being slighted. It's not that the women wouldn't have sex with him -- it's not carnal. Instead he complains how "your kiss meant nothing" and how she "filled my head with insane thoughts and emotions." Del caught feelings and thought the woman felt that way too -- a basic kind of understanding -- but she didn't. Instead, Del gets caught putting himself out there and getting turned down. That he handles this poorly is not in doubt -- his response is petulant at best, but it's also honest.
It aligns, at least partially, with his beef with rap music and its culture of violence. In all cases, Del is commenting without being fully included. He's embraced for being different, celebrated for it even, but also kept at a distance because of it. No Need For Alarm finds him trying to stand his ground while also wondering why his ground isn't bigger, why his ground can't be a bigger part of hip-hop culture as a whole. He's as confident here as he was on George, but on that album Del raised all kinds of interesting questions about how hip-hop tells stories and how twisted wordplay can get and still flow smoothly. Two years later, on No Need For Alarm, Del's out for answers, and he's not liking the ones the lames are providing. So yes, it's battle rap, but isn't about punchlines to shame an opponent. Nope, on his second album, Del's frustration may get in the way of him making his point clear, but one thing doesn't get lost in all that anger: it's no more Mr. Nice Guy for Del. On No Need For Alarm, the stakes are high, and Del is serious.
Del's new album with Parallel Thought, Attractive Sin, is out now, and look for the Deltron II with Dan the Automator in the fall.