Perhaps with the least foreseen release in a year, already riddled with unpredictability, A Tribe Called Quest managed to reemerge from an 18- year creative slumber. And good god, did we miss them.
If it weren’t already difficult enough, a near two-decade hiatus was only a single obstacle amongst many that the Tribe faced while working on this project. To the misfortune of many, the legendary emcee, producer and seminal founder of the group, Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg whose nimble, clever rhymes helped launch A Tribe Called Quest to both commercial and critical success died due to complications from diabetes earlier this March.
This detrimental loss resonates within the album as the theme of tribute is developed and delivered beautifully. Phife Dawg’s posthumous verses carry the weight only achievable by the few whose souls are intertwined, encapsulated and at one with the spirit of hip-hop. As Busta Rhymes, a frequent collaborator and legend in his own respect put it best when he rapped on the closing track, “The Donald”: “Phife Dawg / you spit wicked every verse / Them no say / respect Trini man first.” And respect, people and artists alike, shall.
A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth (and final) album, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” retains the classic jazz-influenced, afro-centric funk alongside clever but subtle rock sampling (most notably of Black Sabbath’s “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”), all topped with conscious rap via political contemplation. This political rhyming is tied directly to the unraveling election in which Phife raps about the urgency to unite: “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever / Gotta get it together for brothers / Gotta get it together for sisters / For mothers and fathers and dead n—-s / For non-conformists, one hitter quitters / For Tyson types and Che figures.” This idea of unity is attributable not only in the macroscopic sense, as in the Tribe’s message to the outside listeners, but also to the group’s internal turmoil as it attempts to find consolidation. For the need to unite is merely bolstered by a death in the family.
Once upon a time in hip-hop, high-profile collaborations provided the perfect platform for rappers to showcase their chemistry through clever interplay, call-and-response exchange and capture a spectacle akin to flying trapeze artists who boast agility, finesse and raw talent. The mellow track “Dis Generation” does just that plus one. A tradeoff of bars between four rappers (Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Jarobi, & Phife) is smoothly delivered with such seamless interplay and such fluidity that even the Beastie Boys would commend.
This impeccable unison is also evident in the broader scope of the album. Boasting vocals from R&B artist Anderson .Paak, an original outro by the great Elton John, an uncredited hook courtesy of Kanye West, unmistakable guitar playing by The White Stripe’s own Jack White, another tongue twister from the elusive Andre 3000 (who is rumored to join ATCQ), frequent collaborator Busta Rhymes, Jarobi (of course), Talib Kweli, Consequence and another legend in the making, Kendrick Lamar.
With all of that star power, it is all too easy for an album to lose its coherency and fly off the tracks into becoming yet another forgettable, cluttered misfire. But, once in a blue moon, an album arises that defies the commonality and makes use of all its talent. This year’s exception was thankfully delivered, despite an 18-year wait.
Besides overcoming that wait, it is easy to understate (or even fail to acknowledge) the array of accomplishments that come with this album. With “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”, A Tribe Called Quest cements its legacy as a timeless hip-hop group. It is a solid comeback album, it balances with delicacy the hybrid of a posthumous/tribute work, it remains true to the original Tribe spirit by tapping into the ’90s, but not relying on mere nostalgia to deliver, and most importantly: it sounds great in 2016. The task of creating a great album in different decades inside an ever-changing genre is, all by itself, rather miraculous.
A special shout out to Kamaal Ibn John Fareed aka Q-Tip is an absolute necessity. His impact is incalculable, as he served as the primary producer for the first three A Tribe Called Quest albums along with the responsibility of delivering some of the most memorable verses of all time. One might even argue that despite the long list of guests, this final album is, in fact, his brainchild. Take for example what Busta Rhymes said of Tip’s role on the new album: “He was great at being the director for all of us. He was great at conducting the whole picture.” Technically speaking, Tip’s flow has only evolved and become better overtime.
As the late Beastie Boy MCA said, “My rhymes age like wine as I get older.” Same is true for Tip. Appropriately and remarkably, then, Q-Tip’s flow is at its finest when delivering his closing remarks regarding Phife: “We gon’ celebrate him / Elevate him / Papa had to levitate him / Give him his and don’t debate him / Top dog is the way to rate him.”
Rest In Peace, Phife. A Tribe Called Quest is forever.