The new A Tribe Called Quest album is really good.
These are words I didn’t expect to ever write, and having typed them out, I’m exhaling, relaxing for a moment, taking a second to step back from the craziness of the world and appreciate something wonderful.
Because this album, the unexpected, long-awaited, clunkily-titled We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service arrives with a lot of built-in baggage. It’s a requiem for Phife Dawg, the all-planet MC who, with Q-Tip, formed the front line of Tribe and who didn’t live to see the completion or release of this album. It’s a comeback record for a group who are held in ridiculously high esteem by both fans and critics, and aside from scattered live appearances and an underwhelming 2003 single, hadn’t produced any work together since 1998. This isn’t just another bunch of mp3s suddenly uploaded to the great cosmic cloud, it’s a hugely anticipated return, a project that a lot of listeners are hugely invested in, a moment where the conquering heroes reappear with boatloads of hype, impossibly high expectations, and an inordinate degree of weight assigned to their every move.
All this context is worth noting because, nine times out of ten, ‘importance’ is the death knell for vitality. The moment a creation bears the burden of representing unrealistic pressure to be everything to everyone, of accomplishing more than simply being an enjoyable experience unto itself, it’s easy to slip into self-parody, or over-thinking, or straight-ahead pretension. And when you tack on the burden of nostalgia, of memory, of knowing that your peak work meant so much to so many – well, the pitfalls are difficult to avoid. You can be the big band on the reunion tour, ignoring the fact that they can’t move like they used to, but still selling plenty of overpriced t-shirts. You can be the surviving Beatles doing ‘Free As A Bird’. You can be Harper Lee with her great lost work that everyone freaks out over for two weeks, then ends up in cut-out bins across the country. You can be The Godfather 3, or Crystal Skull, or Episode One.
But I guess once in a while, you can pause, take stock, accept how much you and the world have changed, forget about the surface elements, and somehow simply enjoy yourself with your friends.
And that’s what Tribe somehow manage to do here. They make it work, they make it sound easy and unforced. This is an album that’s a spirited reunion, a heartfelt farewell, and a triumphant finale all at once, punctuated by an awareness of mortality, underscored with a feeling of lifelong friendship, infused with a sense of camaraderie and what-the-hell let’s-do-this. This isn’t the sound of people beating the odds, it’s more that they ignored the odds, did their thing, and it somehow turned out just right.
Let me repeat that, bring it back around. It turned out just right.
Which doesn’t mean it’s sterile or perfect or flawless. There are plenty of rough edges here, lots of places where the human element is entirely evident, where you can get tripped up by a weird off-kilter second of silence, a lyrical near-miss, or a burst of noise. And that’s okay, because in an era where we don’t have to move the needle or fast-forward the tape, holding the listener’s focus is key: it’s so easy to change inputs, hit “next” on your iTunes or internet radio, or get distracted by some other form of instantly accessible media, that listening to an album straight-through is something that even the most dedicated devotees don’t often accomplish.
A number of elements that Tribe have used on past records reappear here, being deployed in new ways but achieving a familiar result. Spoken word intros and snippets of sound appear without warning, interludes and unexpected moments of quiet punctuate the space between tracks, songs take sharp right turns or end before you get the chance to enter them fully. Filtered samples drift past, beats echo, thump, rattle, and snap you to attention. Brass and vocal stabs are used to maximum effect. Q-Tip’s production style captures the same thrilling ethic of his vocal technique: precisely on-point, but with a casual affectation that makes it easy to overlook just how much thought is expended in the assembly. Each number grows and evolves at it goes on, unpacking new hooks partway through, sounding natural enough that you get swept away before you can stop and get your bearings. We’re not focusing on the details, so we’re already onboard by the time the sample flips or the beat drops, and by that time, it’s too late. The ticket is punched, we’re underway, and we trust we’ll end up somewhere better when the ride is over.
(That subtext becomes straight-ahead text pretty quickly, as a sample of Gene Wilder in full-on Willy Wonka manic tourguide mode appears at the end of the first track. Just in case hearing Tribe operating in full effect wasn’t enough to sweep me away on first listen, here’s a snippet of pure childhood wonder/terror, tearing down whatever cynical resistance I could still manage. Hold on tight, here we go.)
This isn’t, however, an exercise in nostalgia – it’s a 2016-model Tribe, focused and firing on all cylinders, making music for right now. And while it’s clear that these songs were intended to function in conversation with the world around them, reflecting the culture and society they occupy, they’re all the more resonant for having appeared at this exact moment. The album landed two days after the election, showing up on our devices while we struggled to process the news, giving us a soundtrack of thoughts and concerns that could be taken straight from our social media feeds.
In fact, conversational is a fitting term to use when describing this music. No punches are pulled, but likewise, no sermons are delivered. Politics and societal issues are addressed in matter-of-fact, almost offhand fashion; the lyrics express clear points of view without ever telling anyone what to think. It speaks to where we are, it tells of where we’ve been. It’s immediate and timeless, packed with turns of phrase and melodic statements that burrow deep inside your brain, and resurface hours later in entirely different contexts.
The first single, ‘We The People’, is a prime illustration of how well these elements combine and work together: the lyrics detail the current climate of hatred and intolerance, declaring the common bonds of black folks, poor folks, Muslims, Mexicans, and gays in the modern-day Trumped-up climate, while also envisioning gender equality, commenting on gentrification and media complicity, throwing in a few well-crafted sports metaphors, and wrapping it all up with some chest-beating boasts about Tribe’s unequaled superiority and longevity in the rap game. And at the same time, on another level, the rumbling bassline and the layered beat that hits you in the gut while sweeping your feet from under you. The reverbed snare whips through the air, the bass goes straight for the heart, the chorus lodges itself in your unconscious, and Tip and Phife’s vocals weave in and out of the open spaces of the music, dancing on the edges of the ring and daring anyone to come take their best shot.
It’s evident that most of this record was made with the participants face-to-face in the studio, sharing not just the same goals, but the same physical space: the rappers overlap, interrupt, contrast, and compliment one another so often that the interplay, not the individuals, becomes the main attraction. Just as one example, ‘Dis Generation’ is a particular marvel of vocal cohesion, as the mic gets handed from one MC to another in the middle of stanzas, voices join together to double select lines, one passes off to another on the spur-of-the-moment, and it all comes across as effortless, appearing as little more than a group of friends vibing on the same level, just having a good time doing what they do.
The head, the heart, and the booty are all reckoned and connected with over these sixteen tracks, and the casual-but-competitive atmosphere makes it crystal-clear that at this point, Tribe isn’t just a band, it’s an extended family – and this album may as well be snapshots of that family enjoying a holiday dinner, engaging in some difficult political debate, acknowledging what they have and what they’ve lost, sharing time together, breaking bread, and occasionally playing hot potato in the middle of a phrase.
That being said, each relative’s individual contributions demand closer inspection: Jarobi, previously the least-known member of the group (having departed active band duty after the release of their 1990 debut) comes through with flying colors here, delivering his raps in a warm, conversational tone, juggling multi-layered lines with grace and aplomb. Longtime affiliate Busta Rhymes effectively functions as a full member of the group here, appearing on a quartet of tracks, rising to the occasion with remarkable energy and passion, harkening back to the young and hungry MC he was when he first appeared with the Quest crew in the early ’90s. Charter Tribesman Ali Shaheed Muhammad, on the other hand, is notable mostly by his absence, his presence felt in spirit and a few well-timed namechecks as opposed to concrete hands-on contributions. Satellite ATCQer Consquence holds it down equally well, building sturdy stacks of syllables, using a matter-of-fact, understated approach to convey complex concepts. And other guests make appearances throughout the album, putting on bravura performances that don’t ever draw undue attention to themselves – artists as varied as Jack White, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Marsha Ambrosius show up and become part of the whole, acting as compliments to the central performers, cohesive voices adding to a unified vision. Even the instantly recognizable ‘Bennie And The Jets’ sample and Elton John guest spot that drive ‘Solid Wall Of Sound’ somehow fit right in, adding more distinct parts to an ever-greater sum.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the fact that co-frontman Phife passed away while sessions for the album were underway, but the verses he drops here sound like they come from a place outside of time – his trademark braggadocio and swagger is here in spades, his gift for interior rhyme and out-of-the-blue wordplay as immediate as ever. He turns phrases on their heads, jumping between metaphors, sports references, and social commentary without hesitation, rattling off his thoughts in a way that inspires close consideration and involuntary giggling at the same time. In short, he sounds utterly, totally… Alive. His performances happen in the present tense. This isn’t a swan song or a victory lap, it’s someone doing what they’re best at, getting together with friends to do what they love.
And though Q-Tip doesn’t always get mentioned in discussions of all-time MCs, this album makes both his ability and his versatility crystal-clear: he varies intonation and flow from song to song, and even line to line. He raps in his upper register on one track, then drops to his chest voice on the next, switching gears to match the rhythm of each moment. One moment he’s rapping slowly and falling right on the back end of the beat, then he switches it up completely, gaining speed and focusing his energy, ’til his lyrics tumble over themselves, spinning out thoughts that can barely be contained by measures and verses, spilling over the edges of the music.
All in all, this is a record defined by its complexity and contradictions, deriving strength from acceptance of imperfection, aware that precision is no substitute for feel. This is a Hip-Hop that’s aware of the fragile power of youth but comfortable with its own maturity, a group wearing the weight of history without being buried by it. They’ve loved, and lost, and come back in style. They’re feeling the absence of one of their own, connecting with those who remain, and fighting back to make a triumphant return. They’re doing it and having fun despite the odds; they’re old enough to know better, young enough to go for it anyway, talented enough to make it happen, and smart enough to make it work. They know the stakes, they have the skills, and they stick the landing.