De La Soul's new Buhloone Mindstate features a drawing of the group's three members--Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Baby Huey Maseo--with their lips pulled off their faces and tied in knots. Now what are we to make of that? The threesome's playful, swirling, psychedelic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, sliced the top off rap's head and scrambled its brains; in the place of braggadocio, heavy beats, and overbroad humor they presented a personal, indecipherable cosmology, an airy, goofy sound collage, and an almost ethereal sense of fun. Their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, saw them recoiling from the entranced fans who had dug too deep the group's declaration of a new "D.A.I.S.Y." age ("Da Inner Sound, Y'all" was what the group said it meant). It featured a pot of crushed daisies on the cover to make the point clear, and it contained a more sober but still adventurous panorama of sounds, as well as blistering putdowns of star tripping and gangsta rap. In the two-plus years since, however, the band's legion of descendants (everyone from Deee-Lite to P.M. Dawn) have taken the "inner sound" farther and farther. What's a watershed band to do? Buhloone Mindstate is the confusing answer. It's another exposition of pulverized pop, but with side trips into drones, weird jazz, and other sorts of less-than-compelling sonic dreamscapes. It also contains a lyrical universe that's beyond this willing listener's ken, which is a nice way of saying I haven't the faintest idea what the fuck they're talking about. There's a hook here and there ("Eye Patch"), and the band members unquestionably remain some of the most sophisticated song constructors in rock, but mostly this record makes me want to pull my lips off and tie them in a knot. A Tribe Called Quest, longtime De La Soul mates, have kept their sights set lower over the years: the new Midnight Marauders continues their inquiry into heaving beats, giddy found sounds, and piercing topics. Souls of Mischief opens (see Spot Check). The trouble with bands like these, traditionally, is that the playfulness and smarts of their records get lost in the mix live onstage; maybe this show will be different. Sunday, 6 PM, China Club, 616 W. Fulton; 466-0400 or 466-0812.