This is A Tribe Called Quest’s most political album, but those politics flow naturally from everything the group has given us throughout its existence.
A Tribe Called Quest’s new, sixth album We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service is unprecedented in hip-hop. It’s difficult to recall another group within this still young genre with an 18-year gap between albums, or anything close to it. Tribe publicly disbanded in 1998, tried various times over the years to reunite and managed a handful of dynamic but nostalgia-based reunion shows and mini-tours over the past decade. Then one of their core, founding members, Phife Dawg -- essential to the group -- passed away in March of 2016.
Rolling Stone's obituary for Malik Taylor, aka Phife, ended like this: “A Tribe Called Quest's Tonight Show performance of "Can I Kick It?" -- their first televised performance in 15 years -- would end up being the group's last.”
As it turns out, that performance is what got the group back into the recording studio, to quietly create a sixth Tribe Called Quest album, one that would be released six months after Phife’s death and three days after the US presidential election – two events that form a big part of the album’s subtext.
We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service draws much of its strength from a balance between the past and present. It’s referential towards the group’s past works but not reverential. In step with but not imitative -- a rarity for anyone making a new album after that long of a break.
The opening seconds of the first track, “Space Program”, instantly mark it as a Tribe Called Quest album -- but it feels to the listener not like going backward, more like we’re getting back in step with a creative force that’s still moving. Their opening chant that we “gotta get it together” sounds like a familiar Tribe-ism. Yet it is made more powerful by the anxious rage projected in the song -- rage that, frankly, many of us are feeling and living this very moment.
Using space exploration as a metaphor for a country that’s moving in a direction away from concern for people of color (“mass un-blackening / it’s happening / you feel it y’all?”, Jarobi declares, bringing Larry Wilmore to mind) -- or concern for human beings, really -- they also are asking the people to unite and do something: “let’s make something happen”. The energy behind that ask, and behind the music, feels 100 percent Tribe but much more in-the-moment than anyone would have expected of this album.
There are scattered references to past Tribe lyrics on the album (and sounds -- the love song “Enough” uses a bit of “Bonita Applebum”, from their debut). Yet the album is also littered with topical references to modern-day racism and injustice, and to moments where ordinary people stood up to the same.
Donald Trump himself is called out by name once, in an especially enraged verse by Phife on “Conrad Tokyo”, and his presence hovers over much of the album. That song, also featuring Kendrick Lamar, comes a good three-fourths of the way into the album but ranks among the most pointed statements of struggle that Tribe has ever released. Though he’s always worn his temper on his sleeve, Phife Dawg could be easily typecast as the comedian of the group. But here he’s filled with anger, for TV media normalizing the extreme views of Trump, and for the country as a whole -- “as if this country ain’t already ruined". Lamar matches that with an apocalyptic vision of now -- “Sayonara tomorrow / he’s just blood on the ground”.
This is A Tribe Called Quest’s most political album, but those politics flow naturally from everything the group has given us throughout its existence. In 2016 we feel their pain because it’s the pain we’re feeling.
Pain is central here, from our cultural/societal moment of confusion to Phife’s friends and collaborators’ sadness at his passing. Both are dealt with in open, vivid ways, from Q-Tip’s expressions of inner confusion (“The world is crazy / and I cannot sleep”, is a memorable line on “Melatonin”) to his heartfelt recap of his lifelong relationship with Phife (on “Lost Somebody”).
To express all of that pain they’ve brought along heavy-hitters. On paper, the list of guests made the album feel like it was going to be a star-studded tribute to the group’s legacy. In practice, all of them are given the space to shine; they blend into the fabric of the album, and most of them sound as good as they ever have. Listen to Andre 3000 at the top of his game, sounding like he never went on hiatus himself, on “Kids”. Listen to Anderson Paak, one of 2016’s superstars, on “Movin’ Backwards”, not just singing the hook but taking a whole verse to articulate feelings of helplessness and then determination – “I don’t want to move backwards, no”. Then, on the fourth verse, doing a back-and-forth singalong with Q-Tip that feels new yet representative of the interplay that’s integral to Tribe.
Consequence is back -- he was essentially a member of the group for Tribe’s fourth album, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life -- and adds a steadfast toughness that serves as both an echo of the dire context and a foundational reminder of the group’s ongoing strength. Busta Rhymes, a longtime friend who appeared on three of their five previous albums, channels Phife’s spirit, on “Dis Generation” especially, by tapping into the dancehall toasting style that Phife, who had Trinidadian roots, had a fondness for. On “Mobius” he’s more in high-energy Busta mode, a style that can’t help but recall his showstopping past on Tribe’s “Scenario”.
Jarobi raps -- and raps well – on nearly half of the album’s tracks. Often described as a trio, A Tribe Called Quest has always claimed Jarobi as a full member, yet on albums, he was barely present (live he often served more as a hype-man or back-up). But here he is, projecting a more straightforward ‘90s NYC vibe while fitting in seamlessly and making numerous attention-getting contributions.
Complicating the “who is Tribe in 2016?” question, one of the core members, their DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is nowhere to be found (apparently busy working on the score for Luke Cage). Consider them a trio or a quartet or whatever, they feel here more like a tribe, a gathering of like-minded folks. Q-Tip has repeatedly framed this as the final Tribe Called Quest album, but it feels like the opening of a door.
That’s partly because of Q-Tip’s overall creative vision here, musically. He’s always been the group’s nerdy crate-digger, and this album bears the mark of that. The samples are diverse – from Black Sabbath, Can and Gentle Giant to Nairobi Sisters and Musical Youth. The on-point rhythms, when not derived from samples, are mostly courtesy of Q-Tip himself, who plays drums and handles drum programming on many of the songs.
That the album was so driven by Q-Tip but sounds so distinctly like a Tribe album, very different from any of his solo albums, is a testament to the overall spirit of collaboration on display here. It’s in every pore of the album, every second.
We Got It From Here… captures everything that has been essential to A Tribe Called Quest as a project – the focus on flow, the spirit of adventure, the balance of toughness and gentleness, streets and sky. Yet it also feels like an unlikely leap forward. It solidifies the group’s track record for absolute greatness, adding an unexpected sixth turn to a career that followed one aesthetic path but was always moving.