A Tribe Called Quest’s breakup left three talented musicians pursing their own endeavors. As much as the media focuses on Q-Tip over the others, Tribe fans will likely remember a time when this wasn’t true; for the group’s first two albums in particular, their music came across as a collective effort. While now Ali Shaheed Muhammad spends his time adding texture to Lucy Pearl’s soul jams and Q-Tip’s Amplified showcased him trying to expand his horizons in directions both more accessible and more experimental, Phife Dawg’s debut album has him concentrating on the raw elements of hip-hop and trying to bring the attention back to rhyming.
Phife’s style in Tribe was always a bit harder-edged than Q-Tip’s, with a bit of gruff dancehall flavor to boot. On Ventilation: Da LP, he mostly plays up the harder side, dishing out cutting criticisms of the record industry and some of his peers who focus more on glamour and fashion than on the basics of hip-hop. Yet this isn’t all he does; other tracks are more party-oriented or deal mostly with relationship troubles. “Melody Adonis” eschews both of these habits in favor of a heartfelt ode to the love of his life. That track and the industry criticisms hit the hardest on the album, showing that Phife shines most when he has something personal to say.
A few of the party jams are pretty standard, yet throughout the album the spotlight is on Phife’s skills as an MC, and he does not disappoint. Working solo has also allowed Phife to stretch out a bit; on a few songs his flow is much different than in the past. I especially notice a KRS-One influence I hadn’t detected before; not the “teacher” side of KRS, but the “Bridge Is Over”/battle MC side. Phife excels as a hip-hop word warrior, and throughout Ventilation he’s helped at that task by some of the best (and most ubiquitous) producers around, including DJ Hi-Tek, Jay Dee, Pete Rock and Supa Dav West.
Most of the media attention on Ventilation has focused on the two songs where Phife delivers thinly veiled criticisms of Q-Tip’s new direction and of how Tip behaved in the final days of Tribe. Yet Tribe fans shouldn’t expect the album to be filled merely with bitterness about Q-Tip’s relatively higher status in the hip-hop world. Ventilation continues Phife’s career as a skilled MC with edge and humor. If all three Tribe members’ releases fail a bit in comparison to the best Tribe albums, it’s because together the three had something special, the magical quality of the best collaborations. Still, Phife’s Ventilation holds with the other two members’ recent works as a solid fresh start.