With the release of Bionix, the second installment of the Art Official Intelligence troika, De La Soul come off unpretentious and finally unfettered after previous efforts to escape the Day-Glo handcuffs created by 3 Feet High and Rising, their hugely influential debut. The album is, as its title promises, "better, stronger, faster." On second thought "faster" might be pushing it a bit.
Where their last album, Mosaic Thump, found a mostly relaxed De La dipping into different styles, from pure bang to soul jazz, Bionix is more cohesive. It rarely approaches the exuberance of tracks like "Thru Ya City," "Oooh," and "Squat" (with the exception of the slow-funk fat-booty tribute "Baby Phat," which advises women to "Skip a salad, girl/Bring us both the menu/Eat the whole box of chocolates I sent you") but definitely compensates with genuine soul.
On Bionix De La employs both restraint and near-impeccable judgment. Rather than complacently lacing some old Marvin or Reverend Green with a drum kick to approximate a contemporary soul track, the Soul brothers actually brought in live organs and recruited Al Green's pianist, Willie Mitchell, to create the affectingly spiritual "Held Down."
Choosing the right collaborators also continues to be one of De La Soul's strengths. Their ability to pick style over current market value (as in previous pairings with Chaka Khan and Common) continues with artists like José Hernandez (the Latin-inflected "Watch Out") and Cypress Hill's B-Real ("Peer Pressure"). Bionix even includes the best Slick Rick song since his liberation. The harpsichord creep in "What We Do (For Love)" becomes the perfect backdrop for brother Ricky's raunchy guest vocals.
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If Bionix has a weakness, it's a product of its strengths. The album feels complete, but the production is so similar from song to song that it occasionally blurs, forcing you to examine the track list to remember if you just heard "Special" or "Am I Worth You." Also the dangerously ambitious conceit De La started with the Art Official Intelligence series -- three interrelated albums in three years -- is almost invisible between Bionix and Mosaic Thump, except for consistencies in packaging design and skits. Listeners shouldn't miss it, however, because thankfully the music remains the message here.