De La Soul 

AOI: Bionix (Tommy Boy)

Mellow, quirky and literate, De La Soul had personality to spare -- that is, until the departure of Prince Paul, the Long Island trio's brilliantly cracked producer. When he left, so did the perfect balance of art and accessibility that coated the first three De La albums with critic-whipping pheromones. What followed were the stiff edutainment of Stakes Is High and last year's awkwardly commercial Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, Lexus music that left the outfit's multiple Dada nicknames -- MC Posdnuos is also known as Plug 1, Pasta and Wonder Why --seeming like odd vestiges of a funky ice-cream-truck past. Luckily for anyone with a sweet tooth, AOI: Bionix brings back the fun.

The neck-whipping "Baby Phat," a body-positive, Oprah-safe "Baby Got Back," is the urbane instant club hit De La hasn't managed since the '91 single "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)." Backed by the Goodie Mob's Cee Lo and Al Green's band, "Held Down" lilts and twangs like an old Otis Redding record, as organic a sound as anything on 3 Feet High and Rising, their celebrated '89 debut. Most of the 15 tracks on this second installment of the proposed AOI trilogy are hooky and vibrant, departing from the minimal beats and impassive diva choruses of recent albums. They also prove that Maseo (a.k.a. Plug 3, Pasemaster Mase and Baby Huey) is indeed the inventive, eclectic DJ Prince Paul had made him seem.

Soulful as their slow flow can be, both Pos and Dave (a.k.a. Plug 2, a.k.a. Dove, a.k.a. Trugoy) are philosophical emcees who have been known to get esoteric -- sometimes the only emcee more abstract is M.C. Escher. But here they're sharp and down to earth. On Mosaic Thump, Plug 2 made the groundbreaking admission of fallibility, but with Bionix, De La goes even further into the territory where no hip-hop has gone before: They're so humble they treat guest emcees to perfectly tailored full songs rather than cameos. "Peer Pressure," with B-Real, bounces like catchy early Cypress Hill. And Slick Rick's Bronx-Cockney playboy shtick makes the dancehallish "What We Do (For Love)" De La's smoothest, funniest sex jam since 3 Feet's "Buddy."

Meanwhile, Prince Paul has retired to a private Idaho of loopy concept albums, hip-hoperas and geeky novelty rappers. With the flavorful Bionix, Plugs 1-3 prove what they've insisted for years: that the fourth Plug wasn't crucial to the circuit.

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