“It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever.” Even as they prepare to bid us goodbye for good with the release today of their last ever album, A Tribe Called Quest seem intent on being on point to the very end.
The New York hip-hop group, who first came to prominence in 1990 with their worldly debut album ‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’, were one of the finest acts to emerge in the genre in the early 1990s, packing their rhymes and production with a limitless sense of creativity and intellectualism. To listen to ‘The Low End Theory’ (1991) and ‘Midnight Marauders’ (1993) is to receive an engaging education in hip-hop at its most artistic, if not its greatest.
After disbanding in 1998 (and reforming as a live act sporadically between 2006-13), the group reunited last November for a rousing performance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Triggering a desire among group members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad to add to their largely-blistering discography, the quartet secretly hit the studio for the first time since 1998’s ‘The Love Movement’.
But their grand comeback was knocked off course in March by the devastating news that Phife had passed away suddenly from complications from diabetes. Music grieved for the self-styled Five Foot Assassin, but Tip, Jarobi and Ali found some solace in continuing to work on the project that they’d started with Phife, adding in rhymes and “the blueprint” that the 45-year-old had left behind. And with the finished product, ‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’, the group have not only honoured Phife’s legacy but have also succeeded in furthering their own iconic status.
At 16 tracks long, there’s plenty to unpack here – which, when we’re in need of a distraction from the real world more than ever, is an additional blessing – but even on first listen, ‘We Got It from Here…’ packs the kind of immediate punch that’s often lacking with the most anticipated of albums. Here’s some initial thoughts on why ATCQ may have saved the best ‘til last.
The group mentality is still very much there
Listening to Tribe is never a chore: see the joyful interplay of ‘Check The Rhime’ (“You on point Tip?” “All the time, Phife”) and the unending appeal of the classic rap cypher on ‘Scenario’ from ‘The Low End Theory’. ‘We Got It From Here…’ revives that endearing on-record chemistry, with Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi trading solid rhymes throughout: see the rapid-fire likes of ‘Solid Wall of Sound’ and ‘Dis Generation’, which also feature regular ATCQ associate Busta Rhymes.
And if anyone doubted that the new Tribe couldn’t match the old Tribe, Phife’s verse on ‘We The People’ will slap them into submission: “The Tribe be the best in they division / Shaheed Muhammad cut it with precision / Who can come back years later, still hit the shot?” Very few, is the answer to that.
Phife is immortal
The Trini Gladitor lives on in ‘We Got It From Here…’, much to the delight of ATCQ and hip-hop fans everywhere. Using rhymes he’d contributed prior to his death – Q-Tip revealed that Phife had been working on lyrics for the new album the night before he passed – Phife is very much alive on the new album, sticking to his guns on ‘Whateva Will Be’ (“No need for improvement / Fuck you and who you think I should be, forward movement”) and confidently offering up any opposition on ‘The Donald’: “Phife Dawg legend, you can call me Don Juice / I’m the shit right now, what, you need to see proof?”
The man – sorry, the legend – even admonishes the US media for failing to stop Donald Trump before his momentum grew to evidently Presidential heights: “CNN and all this shit / Why y’all cool with the fuckery?/ Trump and SNL hilarity, troublesome times kid, no time for comedy… As if this country ain’t already ruined.” A gifted wordsmith and a prescient force? That’s the lyrical genius of Phife for you.
The guest features are spectacular
If the thought of a new ACTQ album 18 years after what appeared to be the final album wasn’t enough on its own to get fans salivating, then the subsequent announcement of who’d made the guestlist to their farewell party whet listeners’ appetites to drooling proportions. There’s Jack White bringing his unmistakable scuzz on the likes of ‘Lost Somebody’ and ‘Ego’, Elton John adding to a sample of his 1974 song ‘Bennie and the Jets’ on ‘Solid Wall of Sound’, and Anderson .Paak doing what Anderson .Paak does by bringing buckets of searing soul to proceedings on ‘Movin’ Backwards’.
And then there’s the two stand-out features from Kendrick Lamar (‘Conrad Tokyo’) and the ever-returning André 3000 on ‘Kids…’. The sheer quality of the latter even convinced The Roots drummer and ACTQ affiliate Questlove to speculate that ACTQ should consider inviting the Outkast man to join the group on a permanent basis – now wouldn’t that be something?
It draws on their past greatness
Q-Tip’s understated and cerebral flow continues – see his verse on ‘Whateva Will Be’ for a fine example of Tip at his best – Phife, as we’ve covered, is reassuringly Phife, Jarobi comes through to rap on the same level as his fellow MCs, while Ali Shaheed’s eclectic production style maintains the kind of freshness beat-wise that really hasn’t abated since ‘People’s Instinctive Travels…’ in 1990.
There’s also a nod to the past: take the famous sitar sample that forms the backbone of early cut ‘Bonita Applebaum’ on the slinking ‘Enough!!’, while the opening double bass sample on ‘Ego’ sounds tremendously similar to ‘Low End Theory’ opener ‘Excursions’. They’re hidden gems for returning ACTQ fans, linking the greatness of their past to the greatness of their present.
And it serves as a perfect entry point to the world of ACTQ
Which could perhaps be the biggest achievement of this final record. Even if you haven’t consciously engaged with ATCQ before – and you definitely have, even if you only know the refrain “Can I kick it? Yes you can…” – there’s no better time than the present to invest yourself in the immensely creative and influential world they crafted between 1990-98.
‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’ is out now, and available to stream if you just want to dip your toe in. It’s a fine introduction to ATCQ’s genius for the uninittated, so what better way to honour Phife and indeed A Tribe Called Quest then by kicking back and enjoying what could be their final ever contribution to the world?