November 14, 2016

tribe

Son Raw loves his young nation.

Our species has a limited perspective: only three physical dimensions exist across a linear axis of time. That makes imagining A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album outside of its immediate context—an 18 year absence punctuated by the death of founding member Phife and the greatest political tragedy in a generation—almost impossible. And yet I want you to try, because with a little luck the world won’t end and some kid will discover this record 30 years from now the same way we discovered What’s Going On, There’s a Riot Goin On, or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back; albums born of troubled times whose impact long outlasted the difficult circumstances that forged them. Because surprisingly, shockingly even, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service reaches those lofty heights.

The odds were against this outcome. To put it bluntly, old rappers don’t make classics. De La Soul’s Kickstarter was unfortunately better than their album, the less said about Wu-Tang, the better, and Dr. Dre’s Compton was only redeemed by Anderson Paak’s boost in profile. A reunited Tribe, bolstered by guests including Elton John and Jack White, were never guaranteed success, and yet WGIFHTY4YS (acronym doesn’t roll off the tongue does it?) is a perfect 2016 Tribe album because it actually sounds like a Tribe album.

Whereas most old school artists feel compelled to fit in with contemporary trends, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, and everyone who contributed to the music remain defiant in their adherence to the Tribe formula: clipped funk, booming drum breaks, psychedelic samples, plenty of bass, and space for the rhymes. It actually manages to nail the group’s core sound in ways Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement didn’t, keeping the late Jay Dee’s sampledelic innovations without leaning on his skewed drum programming, something that never quite fit the group. What’s more, with countless references to Tribe albums past hidden away in the scratches, lyrics and loops, there’s a ton to unpack here, with not a dud in earshot for the album’s 60 minutes.

This rock solid sonic foundation is all the group needs to spark the same incredible chemistry that defined their greatest work over two decades ago. Tip and Phife sound positively rejuvenated and thrilled to be making a Tribe album, bittersweet given the circumstances but still a joy and a privilege to hear one last time. Extended family Jarobi and Consequence provide crucial pinch hits, with Cons sounding particularly refreshed: never a star rapper, he thrives as a pinch hitter here, and serves as a reminder that today’s rap scene could use more groups with real chemistry.

Better yet, Busta Rhymes finally accepts his destiny, de-facto joining the Tribe roster, and I’d be hard pressed to think of any MC who’s ever been more excited to appear on a record. His every patois laced bar and every exchange with Tip or Phife has him sounding ready to explode and he fits in so naturally with the now extended group, that I’m left (selfishly) wishing they’d soldier on in this new incarnation to honor Phife.

As for the guests, they offer the clearest window into the album’s mysterious and convoluted title: a who’s who of Tribe’s descendants, ready to carry the torch. Here again, Tribe distinguish themselves from their bitter, crotchety, peers—recognizing that there’s never been a more accepting musical environment for the type of conscious, afrocentric hip hop they’ve spearheaded. Elton and Jack White’s contributions thankfully play the back, and we’re instead treated to Talib Kweli and Kanye repping for the Soulquarian generation, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick repping contemporary California’s spiritual awakening, and Andre 3000, who finally gets his moment in the sun with Q-Tip, two decades after his favorite group broke up. To be fair, none of these guest spots are strictly necessary, but everyone brings their A game and their inclusion proves a point: if this is Tribe’s last album, they’re comfortable leaving Hip Hop in the hands of the groups they’ve inspired.

And yet it’d be all for nothing if the songs weren’t there and this is where the album shines brightest, answering the almost impossible question: “What does A Tribe Called Quest sound like, pushing 50?” The group was the voice of a generation and an era, both of which feel like distant, sepia toned memories in today’s blighted times, but again, Tribe sticks to the script. The playful rhyme science intersects with politics and culture, the soulfulness of the music sweetens the tough topics and the group isn’t afraid to combine their once precocious wisdom to their now timeless playfulness. It’s an inversion of the formula: they used to be old souls, now they’re grown ass kids but as always they’ve got so much to say that they don’t even need to admonish rappers who can’t keep up. Their work speaks for itself. Gentrification, loss, ego, racism, police brutality, and shit talking all get checked. In short, they pick up like they never left.

Finally, there’s “The Donald,” easily the group’s greatest riddle since the chorus to Electric Relaxation, and this time looking up the lyrics online won’t save you. It’s certainly no endorsement, but neither does it admonish the man America is stuck with for four years. In fact, it ignores the topic entirely, save for a scratched chorus, instead sounding like a classic Tribe rhyme routine built around the one and only Phife Dog’s name. So what is it? My best guess is…playful mockery. The same kind that Tribe has always excelled in: even at the group’s genesis, in crack-decimate New York, they were never the firebrand polemicists of Public Enemy or the agitators of NWA. A Tribe Called Quest responded to an unfair world with inside jokes about El Segundo; music that lifted from aging rockers like Lou Reed just as much as it did from underappreciated jazz greats like Ron Carter; and lyrics that made everyone feel welcome, expanding hip hop’s audience at a time when critics refused to even regard it as music.

Shockingly, in 2016, they’ve done it again. That they’ve done so when we’re at our most divided, and when we needed it most, is a true gift to the world, and one that deserves our time and attention. In short, it’s why they’re now beyond any shadow of a doubt, the greatest Hip Hop group of all time. 5 mics.