Forming fresh out of high school in Queens, New York, A Tribe Called Quest have always followed their own path. They became prominent ambassadors of the Zulu Nation in the early 90s and found solace in the promotion of peace, love and unity through their music. Now almost two decades down the line, where do they currently fit within a diversifying genre at a time of social and political uncertainty?
In the build up to the release of We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, some fans were sceptical – Tribe’s discography is, after all, extraordinarily consistent, and besides, what would a Jack White or an Elton John feature sound like? Recorded in Q-Tip’s home studio, We Got It From Here is not merely another boom bap throwback, but instead displays a progressive marriage of styles with an important message. Jack White’s guitar contributions blend seamlessly with Q-Tip’s production and Elton John’s feature on Solid Wall of Sound is one of the album’s stand out moments – the track samples Elton’s Bennie and The Jets, the art of sampling of course being a religious practice for Q-Tip at this point.
In Michael Rapaport’s 2012 documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Tribe’s former manager, Chris Lighty (R.I.P.), speaks on their use of sampling and its importance to their music, “The sample budget was probably as big as the album budget to record it. But that’s what made the uniqueness of the music.” The sitar strings, sampled from Rotary Connection’s Memory Band and previously heard on Bonita Applebum, make a welcomed return on Enough!! and there are plenty of hidden classics to be revealed, such as Invisible’s Ruido de Magia, sampled on Dis Generation.
As did Beats, Rhymes and Life, amidst the east side vs west side fallout, in 1996, We Got It From Here delivers an alternative message to that which is being perpetuated by the mainstream media: projecting the collective voice of the disenfranchised and quelling the fear and anxiety that continues to enshroud black communities and minorities throughout the world. Lead single, We The People, is a rallying cry against a nation being torn apart by divisive media and farcical politics – a distorted bassline underlies verses exchanged by Q-Tip and Phife, each sounding as though they are being transmitted through a megaphone.
Besides a strong political message, We Got It From Here offers an eclectic mix of textures and compositional arrangements, proving that, when it comes to keeping ears to the ground, A Tribe Called Quest also keep ears to the ceiling, walls and probably the majority of your furniture too – following years of creative differences and personal issues, it’s clear they each fell back in love with the process of working together – there’s a certain energy present throughout the album and the distinguishable influences are vast to say the least.
The Space Program opens the album announcing their return, “It’s coming down hard, we’ve got to get our shit together!” and from this point, no matter who’s on the track, the chemistry is infectious. Consequence and Busta Rhymes feature prominently, having appeared alongside the group many times over the years, however, newer faces, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, sound just as comfortable – Kendrick holds his own on Conrad Tokyo and although he isn’t featured on Melatonin, the track sounds like it could have been a part of To Pimp A Butterfly.
Solid Wall of Sound features piano phrases that Tyler, the Creator would be proud of and as Busta enters, with his trademark low and gruff register, it’s almost as if Tyler’s jumping on the track himself. It’s not too long before André 3000 shows up on Kids… keeping up his track record of appearing on other people’s albums for a minute or two before disappearing and reminding us how another solo project from him is way overdue.
Marsha Ambrosius, Katia Cadet and Abbey Smith supply smooth vocals along with Anderson .Paak – Marsha and .Paak of course appearing together on Dr Dre’s Compton in 2015. As on Compton, they provide soulful flavours, although things feel more cohesive on this project – .Paak’s work on Movin Backwards stands out in particular, which evolves into a mixture of sweet melodies between verses from Jarobi and Q-Tip.
The Killing Season is a lament for the black lives who have passed and/or been treated unjustly in the hands of the law over the last few years. Talib Kweli, Consequence, and Jarobi make reference to Eric Garner and the McKinney Pool Party incident, proclaiming “Things haven’t really changed…” as Kanye repeats “They sold ya, sold ya, sold ya”, or as some have interpreted, “They sold ya soul ya soldier” on the hook – the track is certainly one of the album’s more poignant moments.
The Donald serves as a fitting closer and tribute to Phife Dawg, who passed in March of this year due to complications with his diabetes. Ali cuts with precision as Busta and Q-Tip praise Phife throughout, with Q-Tip finishing on “We gon’ celebreate him, elevate him, papa had to levitate him / Give him his and don’t debate him / Top dog is the way to rate him” The overall tone is that of celebration, ending the album, which proves to be a thoughtful deconstruction of current racial affairs and a celebration of Afrocentric living, on a sense of hope. It took 18 years, 1 month and 13 days, but finally, despite missing a dear friend, A Tribe Called Quest have the closure they deserve.
R.I.P. Phife and thank you for your service.