A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite musical entity of all time. Any genre. Any era.
I’m not going to bore you with all of the backstory about my experiences with their music. I’ve spoken about it over the years – most recently after Phife’s passing earlier this year. But I’d heard rumblings through some of my channels that a new project may or may not have been in the works prior to his passing. I took the rumors with a grain of salt because 1.) In the modern age of rampant self-promotion, a reunion album of this magnitude surely would not have gone unannounced, and 2.) I wasn’t sure that I wanted an ATCQ album nearly 20 after what was widely assumed to be their closing chapter, The Love Movement. That album garnered a number of mixed reactions from the fan faithful, ranging from a sense of reserved satisfaction that the crew delivered a viable swan song in the midst of what many of us perceived as a semi-public breakup, to a sense of melancholy at knowing that a highly regarded, highly influential hip hop group might have been in its last days.
As the rumors became more concrete in recent months, I was initially apprehensive because I couldn’t have imagined a 2016 ATCQ album that appealed to everything that I’d loved about them years before. Although I respected their solo and side-project efforts, nothing moved me as much as the projects that they released as a collective. And I was already okay with where they left off in 1998. I didn’t want to potentially bear witness to an album by my favorite group that left a bad taste in my mouth.
“What if the lyrics sound dated and stuck in the 1990s?”
“What if they sound like 90s rappers attempting to appeal to the current aesthetic of lyricism?”
“The nature of sampling and copyright laws has changed significantly since then. What will the production sound like?”
“Phife is only on 7 songs. Who else is going to fill in?”
“Please, God, don’t let Kanye be all over this album.”
And then the artwork leaked. Ugh.
You have to understand – ATCQ’s appeal for me was not only musically, but visually as well. It was this perfect marriage of the senses that reeled me in and kept me tethered. Beginning with the quirkiness of the video for “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” to the misty mysticism in seeing “Bonita Applebum”; the iconic artwork for The Low End Theory and the impossibly original Midnight Marauders cover; even though I didn’t care for the artwork on Beats, Rhymes and Life as much, it was one of the first that I saw that had a 3D effect. I have each of their previous projects on cassette, CD, and vinyl. They look as good on the shelf as they sound in my speakers. I’ve always found the artwork to be a perfect visual component to my listening experience.
And then the artwork leaked for the new album. Again, ugh.
I didn’t like it at all. It felt disjointed and amateurish. It seemed like an afterthought that was disrespectful of a legacy of artistic integrity that was largely unmatched. And I’m talking about the original version, not the one that’s attached to the retail release. The one with the cutout of a naked chick on the cover that looks like Prince, with the LET figure in the lower left corner, looking out of place. Because of the font, I couldn’t tell if “We Got It From Here” was an album title or simply a statement. I didn’t know what was going on at all, to be honest. But I didn’t like it. An album’s visual quality is often an indicator or the underlying content. This was my biggest fear.
There was an immediate outlash. I wasn’t alone, but that didn’t provide any comfort. There was a revision a couple of days later that removed the androgynous Prince woman and replaced her with…. I’m still not sure what it is. But enough about the cover. Just know that it shot my expectations way down.
And now, I’ve finally downloaded the album.
I’m not going to provide a song for song breakdown. Saving that for another format. But I’ll get this part out of the way – I love the album. I listened to it in the tradition that I follow for most projects that I’m eagerly anticipating. I listen to it straight through without ready anything. No song titles, features, or production credits. I want to be surprised. I don’t want to experience the twists and turns until I’m upon them. After the first listen, I immediately listen again with all the info in front of me. I’d already known that Andre 3000, Busta, Consequence, Kanye, and maybe Kendrick would appear, and was pleased to stumble upon Anderson Paak’s surprise appearance.
The most notable accomplishment of this album was the balance and gracefulness in which Phife was woven into the tapestry of the project. There isn’t a standard verse / hook / verse / hook structure. Tip Begins where Phife ends, and vice versa. Jarobi fits in the grooves between the grooves, and makes you wonder why you didn’t hear more of him in the earlier works. It’s hard for me to explain in terms that I might only understand, but there’s such a balance in play that no one presence is overbearing or underutilized. Phife’s limited presence is distributed so well that you hardly notice that he’s missing from any songs. Features don’t feel like features. Busta, Cons, and Kendrick all feel like tips of the same spear, as opposed to loose cannons that stick out like sore thumbs. Any of these people could have been members of ATCQ. I firmly believe that. Andre and Tip made me believe that an Outkast / Tribe album could have worked.
The production featured most of what I loved about their music 2 decades ago. The 95 BPM over / under; hard drums; nonlinear, unpredictable programming. It proved to me that everything does not have to be 808s at 75 BPM (or 150, depending on how you music nerds count it.) Topically, most of the songs speak with a maturity and urgency that’s relevant with the times, but also independent of an anchored point in history. Kendrick and Paak have both proven something that I’ve long felt: I love what they’re doing now because they could have easily fit into the “Golden Era”.
All in all, I’m nothing but pleased with this bookend of Tribe’s career. Tip is THE MAN when it comes to hip hop music, and I will defend this to the end. His contribution to and influence on music is criminally undervalued. Glad to see Jarobi fully integrated into the project. This reminds me of the Busta Rhymes that I was originally a fan of. Phife was no sidekick, and will be sorely missed. This is a fitting closing chapter to a group that has shaped many of my musical and social interests. I will gladly add it to my bookshelf (with the cover facing away).