A Tribe Called Quest’s magical return

A Tribe Called Quests magical return

Cam Fuller

It’s hard not to feel a flood of gratitude for the mere existence of A Tribe Called Quest’s new album. During the course of five albums and eight years, the hip-hop group accomplished effortlessly what few others could do: being consistently great.
With each sample pulled from some primordial, easygoing ether and the drums knocking insistently, the group always sounded like they’d been banging since the dawn of time. They are the definition of what makes “good hip-hop”—positive, jazzy, album-centric music —that has proved near-impossible to replicate. But the albums themselves are all  evergreen.
There isn’t a bad track in the Tribe’s catalog; there isn’t even a bad verse, which points to at least part of the secret of their success: the chemistry between emcees Malik “Phife Dawg” Tyler and Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed.
The tandem set the standard for rap duos, showing that great storytelling in rap comes out of quality teamwork. When one rappers line ended, the other picked up right where he left off, like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences. When the group disbanded in the late ’90s, there was no expectation of a reunion, and any faint hope disappeared completely when Phife died earlier this year on March 22. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, then, is something of a miracle. More than that, it’s great music. The album is an unexpected victory lap by Tip, Phife, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and estranged founding member Jarobi White.
Q-Tip’s presence looms large here. The 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life strongly suggested that Q-Tip’s rising stardom outside of the group led to Tribe’s disbandment, a theory corroborated by Tip’s post-Tribe records, which forged boldly into pop, fusion freak-outs, and lots of neo-soul. Sonically, We Got It From Here picks up not where the last Tribe record left off but where the last Q-Tip solo record, The Renaissance, did: a sinuous sound collage pulling much more from ’90s and ’00s R&B than it does Low End Theory boom-bap. It works, though.
The group continues to pave new roads for contemporary hip-hop, which includes opening the album up to non-rap artists that lended their musical talents to the album.  As harrowing as the notion of Jack White and Elton John cameos may be for true-school Tribe heads, their sonic embellishments come together with Tip’s production to create some of the best songs on the album like “Melatonin” and “Wall of Sound.” It’s warm, intensely musical stuff—much like everything Q-Tip has released in the past decade—but it’s a fitting frame for an ode to a lifelong friend.
The record serves another purpose for the rest of us, though, coming as it does three days after a presidential election opposed by the majority of the electorate. The album is utterly haunted, not just by Phife, who is captured here with the full triumphant glow of his lyrical powers intact, but by us, the listeners who may well have interpreted the record under profoundly different circumstances.
How might Tip’s offhand references to a female president sound in that other world? “The Space Program,” hook implores us to “go left and not right,” flips from howl of protest to champagne toast. The album-closing “The Donald” might have been a kiss-off to the man of the original name, but under current circumstances it’s a discordant note of terror against an otherwise jubilant Phife verse.
We won’t ever know what this album might’ve sounded like as the celebration music for the first weekend of a post-Trump era. Some things, alas, are final. The best we can do is follow the example set by Tip, Muhammad, and Jarobi, as well as the extended Tribe family assembled here: We get back to work. We finish what we started.