Who got the vibes y’all? Still the Tribe y’all.
Disclaimer: This piece is going to be biased as hell.
I don’t think I can still comprehend it. It’s 2016; one of the worst years the modern world has ever seen, with bad news coming in bundles almost everyday. From election results to referendum results to celebrity deaths, this year seems to have just gone from bad to worse to “okay this is getting ridiculous now”. One such saddening event was the passing of hip hop legend Phife Dawg; rapper, activist and all-round icon. One of the front members of the most famous jazz rap group of all time, his death was something everyone involved in genre mourned everywhere; fans and artists alike. So when last month – October 28th to be exact – A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) announced they were to release a brand new album; it’s an understatement to say the world was surprised. Having been released last Friday, I think I’ve finally come to terms with the fact this album even exists, let alone how good it is.
18 years is a hell of a long hiatus whichever way you look at it. ATCQ’s last album ‘The Love Movement‘ was released in 1998, under the impression that it would be there last (emphasised by the fact the group split soon after). Many, many years later it seems that wasn’t the case as the members joined forces again last year to begin on what would later be titled ‘We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service‘. With the announcement came a lot of excitement, with hip hop fans from all generations eager to see how the Tribe would accommodate to the modern day state of the genre. I imagine some may have been a little worried that we wouldn’t get the good ol’ sound that the group had always pioneered and made their own; I know I was. If there was ever any doubt however, the group put to bed any worries – as the project sits safely among every other LP with its consistent jazz rap, stripped-back sound carried over from the 90’s.
Let’s start at the beginning. The track ‘The Space Program‘ is one of the most subtly brilliant openers I’ve heard in a long while, perfectly epitomising the sound and message ATCQ were always pushing. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg begin with a call to action “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever / Gotta get it together for brothers / Gotta get it together for sisters” before the impeccably smooth key melody and soft percussion oozes in with no warning. Before you know it you’re pulled back into the smooth boom bap sound of two decades ago, with every aspect of the song coming together in one joyous movement. If you’ve ever listened to ATQC album before; you’ll feel right at home, like nothing’s changed and there was never any hiatus. As long-lost member Jarobi spits lines like “It always seems the poorest persons / Are people forsaken, dawg / No Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jacksons / On the captain’s log” you realise it- the Tribe are back.
Split into 2 discs, over 16 tracks the Tribe expedite their way through the modern tropes of hip hop to masterfully bring back the sound they were so famous for. Kick drums and gritty samples litter the record in the ‘raw’ feel that’s been so absent of late, projecting this essence of soul even more effectively behind the lovable writings of Q-Tip and company. Tracks such as ‘Kids‘ and ‘The Killing Season‘ percolate the sounds of the streets in the golden age, the craftsmanship of the drum machine emulating both sleekness and spirit. The first features a wonderful duo of wordplay between Q-Tip and Andre 3000 with lines like “I ain’t no almanac, so lick my dictionary / I might just call a cab ’cause I dig canary” while going onto warn the youth that growing up isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. The avant-garde style of musical composition paired with their authentic (often blunt) style of lyricism was and still remains to be the foundation of ATCQ’s style. ‘Dis Generation‘, is a fantastically soulful ode to the current generation of hip hop that legends like the Tribe have paid dividends to. It praises the likes of Kendrick, J. Cole, Joey Badas$$ and Earl Sweatshirt over an grandiose instrumental brimming with guitar licks and one of my favourite few bars from the entire LP: “Leave a dent when drop with the flyness, fluent giant / Dude’s nice, he tight, screwed in with some pliers / Cool with some buyers / Yeah, nigga, cool with some growers / Never no tattletales, only I don’t knowers”.
Throughout the run time the album resists any temptation to incorporate any sort of hip hop sound post-2000, constantly utilising the recognisable templates to power their sometimes fun, sometimes political anthems. On one of the more breezy cuts ‘Enough!!‘, Jarobi and Q-Tip discuss the difficulty of maintaining a relationship while balancing a successful music career. The slow jam drum loop laced with glitzy synths has this wonderful likeness to a 80’s disco track but with enough rough edges to rap over, something the two MC’s do to full effect. It’s the same story with the track ‘Solid Wall of Sound‘, sampling (and featuring) Elton John. The lone piano in the verse section is brilliantly simple when paired the crisp snare and kick drum, allowing ATCQ and frequent collaborator Busta Rhymes to really let loose on it with allusions to previous projects: “Leave that to me, el-Hajj Malik / The man with a plan who made it real for us all / Like marauders on a mission when we killin’ dance halls”
The duality of the Tribe has always been the way it’s balanced jovial, hope-filled aspirations with deep-rooted messages of oppression and the American minority experience. Alongside the more ‘fun’ listings of the record there are more deeper cuts here; spear-headed by the political anthem ‘We the People….‘. If the thunderous drum loop didn’t tell you this was a song with message, the hook will. With a chorus that encapsulates the mindset of what sadly makes up a lot of America “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways” it’s clear that if the Tribe are still talking about it, then things haven’t changed.
The commentary continues with ‘Conrad Tokyo‘, a reflection on America’s economic standings post-2010 and what it meant for the rise in support of figures like Trump. It’s a thought-provoking piece, made even more effective with the addition of Kendrick Lamar, who pens a somewhat short but still face-melting verse. In it he claims America needs a purifying of its economy and the wealth it distributes to differing groups: “Fumigate our economy / Illuminate broken dreams“.
Though Q-Tip steals the show in terms of his masterful beat-making and Jarobi surprises with lyricism undiscovered for so many years, it’s the bittersweet sound of Phife Dawg’s voice that serves as the album’s real heart. Whenever he pops up in a song, which is thankfully pretty frequently, it’s a welcome addition; not only because of his intricate rhyme scheme and brilliant wordplay, but because he was always the soul of the group. While Q-Tip would rally listeners to recognise the world around them and change it for the better, Phife more often than not, seemed happy to spit bars about the simple necessities of living – whether it be a loving relationship or ham n’ eggs. Seemingly full of little cynicism, Phife would always provide a morsel of hope. Every one of his posthumous verses is memorable here, including my personal favourite: “Dreaming of a world that’s equal for women with no division / Boy, I tell you that’s vision / Like Tony Romo when he hitting Witten / The Tribe be the best in they division“
And I can’t talk about Phife unless I mention the track dedicated to him. ‘Lost Somebody‘ in the second half of the record is a wonderful ode to a legendary rapper from his closest associates. Drum kicks, strings, keys and a soul sample all combine for a sombre piece of music, with Q-Tip and Jarobi speaking in fondness of his memory and the times they had together when the Tribe were at the top of the game. Plus a heart-wrenching outro that sings out “No more crying, he’s in sunshine / He’s alright now, see his wings” that sums up the feeling of the fans perfectly. I couldn’t think of a more fitting remembrance.
‘We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service‘ is like meeting an old friend you used to hang out with all the time. People change, sometimes for the worse. But sometimes people don’t change at all and they’re just the same as you remember them; reminding you why you liked them so much. That’s what ATCQ did with their 6th and final album; they didn’t change. The smooth jazz rap sounds of the 90’s, the sounds that rocketed them into the hip hop hall of fame is well and truly alive still, even in shitty old 2016. The way they’ve channelled their spirit into music that still proves to be relevant is astonishing, revisiting the sounds that people loved them for while not conforming or diluting themselves to fit the stylings of today. Q-Tip, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed and Phife Dawg outdid themselves with this one; a masterful showcase of how not only to do a good comeback , but also how to make real hip hop music. ‘We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service‘ is everything I could’ve hoped it would be and more, and an excellent reminder of why A Tribe Called Quest are considered legends.
Highlights: Dis Generation, The Space Program, Conrad Tokyo, The Killing Season, Enough!!, Solid Wall of Sound, The Donald