Micah: From the jump this album lets you know it will be politically charged, calling for solidarity among those wanting to see the country “go left and not right”. The message is underscored by the fact that Tribe has been unable to make music together for nearly twenty years due to creative and personal differences, making this album both a reunion and a farewell. There is something poignant about the group coming together one more time to make music that calls for the kind of peace, love, and unity that they’ve always stood for as members of the Zulu Nation.
When I first started to digest this album, I was let down, maybe because it came at the same time when I was dealing with the election of Donald Trump, or because I was holding the group to an unreasonably high standard set by their earlier discography. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it right away, but I’ve come to realize that this project doesn’t have as much of the levity brought by the smooth beats, charismatic rhymes, and colorful imagery that marked A Tribe Called Quest’s earlier work. This album is many things: a joyful reconciliation of the group’s members, a heart-torn goodbye to Phife Dawg, and a huge middle finger to the darkest parts of the country that rally behind hateful rhetoric and killer cops.
Henry: It’s interesting that you say you were let down on first listen, because I felt the opposite. Perhaps my standards were lowered by my general disappointment earlier this year with De La Soul’s The Anonymous Nobody, but I found myself nodding all the way through both discs of We Got it From Here.
I will say that the record is definitely Tribe’s most overtly political project, though that’s not a bad thing. Rap has always been a form of political speech, and we need that more than ever right now. The issue for me is that the album seems a little torn between wanting to be a protest record and a posthumous tribute to Phife. Not to say that it can’t or couldn’t be both, but if there’s an element that’s not working for me, it’s that those two things feel like separate urges that are competing for the emotional heart of the album. I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair criticism though. Events are weirdly inextricable from one another in that way–we tend to correlate our memories with other memories, and Phife’s passing and the release of this album will forever coincide with the bizarro cultural trauma of the last election cycle, culminating in Trump’s victory and the release of this final offering from Tribe.
Micah: I feel you on this record feeling torn between tribute and protest. It’s like they went into the record intending to make a political statement, and then the sudden passing of Phife twisted the project in a different direction. I might have prefered splitting some of the music up into a small E.P. or single for Phife and leaving the political tracks to make up the album
I guess the reason why I didn’t “get” this album right away had everything to do with my expectations. The Tribe I’m used to is much smoother, more laid back and cooler than what I’m hearing on the new album. In middle age, A Tribe Called Quest’s vibe has become more jagged and aggressive. I think a lot of that has to do with the loss of J-Dilla from The Ummah production team and the limited contribution from Ali Shaheed Muhammad while he’s working on Luke Cage. If you look at the production credits, you see a lot more production exclusively from Q-Tip. Additionally, the group has grown up a lot since the 90’s and that growth shows up in the music, but there is something missing on the production side that used to be there. The advantage of losing this dimension is that it allows for the other side of Tribe to take the spotlight. With a more stripped down and gritty sonic landscape, Phife’s words cut deeper and demand more attention than ever.
Henry: I’m actually a big fan of the production on this record actually, perhaps even moreso than the lyrics. It does feel modernized, audibly distinct from the signature sound of early tribe, but I think they’ve managed to retain most of the the rhythmic heart of that classic Tribe bounce, along with a handful of interesting asides. “Moving Backwards” is solidly within Anderson .Paak’s unique realm of west-coast g-funk neo-soul. “Kids” is one of my favorite cuts on this record, mostly thanks to Andre, but the beat feels like an early OutKast or Goodie Mob joint.
Micah: Did you see that bit from Phife’s memorial when Andre said they were in the process of making a Tribe/OutKast collab album? I don’t know if working together was something they’d just talked about or actually made progress on, but I think Andre’s feature fits really well in the context of the album. Some of the other features worked really well for me too. Busta and Consequence were the most natural, given their history with the band, but Tribe took a risk bringing in Talib, Kanye, .Paak and Kendrick. On everything else in their discography, there have been basically no featured rappers that weren’t already family. On this record, I thought Talib and Kanye fit well, but I found the Kendrick and .Paak songs were Kendrick and .Paak songs featuring A Tribe Called Quest and not the other way around. While the songs matched the rest of the album production-wise, I really could have used more vocal input from the Tribe on these two songs. Don’t get me wrong, these are some of my favorite cuts here, but I don’t feel like Kendrick and .Paak assimilated into the group the way I wanted them to.
Henry: I’d agree with that. A large part of Tribe’s formula comes from the delicate vocal balance between Q-Tip and Phife, to the point that adding another vocalist as distinct as Kendrik or .Paak changes the energy of the song in a tangible way. I think Busta does that too, both here and on the old Tribe cuts with him as well, but having come up in the same early 90’s New York boom-bap family, Busta feels more natural alongside tribe. I respect Tip for stepping back and letting some of the younger vanguard do their thing though, even though it is the last Tribe record. To me, these songs signify a passing of the torch, which is actually the titular theme of the album.
Micah: Passing the torch to the next generation of artists is one of the best parts of this album. On “Dis Generation”, Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi and Busta Rhymes create a collage in the verses, interjecting bars one after another instead of simply trading sixteens. That’s something you don’t see much in the current generation of Hip Hop, trading bar for bar. Near the end of the first shared verse, Q-Tip names Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as the next wave of rappers who have the ability to be as creative and enduring as A Tribe Called Quest, calling them “extensions of instinctual soul”. I love that sentiment.
One of the strongest points of this album is A Tribe Called Quest closing their career on their own terms. For me, this album ranks near the bottom of their discography, but it’s a more graceful bookend to their career than The Love Movement. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service brings closure to the disagreements that broke up Tribe and makes a political statement right when it’s needed most. The message of healing and defiance make this album feel more whole than The Love Movement, which had a lot of mailed in verses (particularly from Phife) and felt like much more of a scramble to put together, propped up by the fantastic production of The Ummah. While I didn’t like the Elton John contributions and some of the features felt a bit forced, this album as a whole leaves me satisfied. It’s not the best record of the year, or close to the best Tribe has put out, but I’m sure glad they did.
Henry: Agreed. I always have a little apprehension about old great groups getting back together for a final album, since so often some bit of the original chemistry is lost or changed, but We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service maintains the spirit of Tribe’s music in a way that’s simultaneously a retrospective and a looking forward, on down the paths of rhythm.
Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain
Here’s a playlist highlighting the best of Tribe’s discography for those who need an introduction and those who want to relive the highlights.
A TRIBE CALLED FOREVER, THE CLASSICS
1. Bonita Applebum – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
2. Can I Kick It? – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
3. Jazz (We’ve Got) – The Low End Theory
4. Buggin’ Out – The Low End Theory
5. Award Tour (featuring Trugoy the Dove) – Midnight Marauders
6. Keep It Moving – Beats, Rhymes and Life
7. Oh My God (featuring Busta Rhymes) – Midnight Marauders
8. Glamour and Glitz – The Show
9. Midnight (featuring Raphael Wiggins) – Midnight Marauders
10. Excursions – The Low End Theory
11. Electric Relaxation – Midnight Marauders
12. I Left My Wallet in El Segundo – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
13. Check the Rhime – The Low End Theory
14. Get a Hold – Beats, Rhymes and Life
15. We Can Get Down – Midnight Marauders
16. Motivators – Beats, Rhymes and Life
17. The Chase, Part II – Midnight Marauders
18. Word Play – Beats, Rhymes and Life
19. 8 Million Stories – Midnight Marauders
20. Scenario – The Low End Theory