A Tribe Called Quest’s Inspired Final Album Finds Wisdom in the Face of Trump’s Hatred
There probably isn’t a 2016 rap release with more sentiment attached to it than We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, the final album from A Tribe Called Quest.
Of course, the sixth album from ATCQ arrives just under eight months after the death of Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor). The Five Foot Assassin died on March 22 at age 45 after a lengthy battle with diabetes, sparking an outpouring of grief and gratitude from Tribe fans, far and wide. At the time of his death, fans had no idea that A Tribe Called Quest had been secretly recording new material for their first album since 1998’s The Love Movement. But following a well-received appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in late 2015, (their first television appearance in 15 years), Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White and Q-Tip had decided it was time to put aside whatever differences they’d held and make a new album as a group. It was during the making of the album that Phife unexpectedly passed away.
It all makes for a lot of weight hanging over a new album. “Highly-anticipated” doesn’t feel like an apt description for what fans were feeling leading up to the release of We Got It From Here… You can’t really call the album “long-awaited,” either. Most observers had long given up any sliver of hope that A Tribe Called Quest would ever record as a unit again; the grievances between Tip and Phife were permanently documented in 2011's Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, a film that made it seem as though the then-estranged partners-in-rhyme would never be able to co-exist long enough for a full project.
Like their Native Tongues affiliates De La Soul, who dropped their first album since 2005 back in August, A Tribe Called Quest returns with an album that evokes the spirit of their storied past without being overly chained to a legacy. From the esoteric weirdness of their debut, to the stripped minimalism of The Low End Theory to the J. Dilla contributions to their final two 90s albums, the greatness of A Tribe Called Quest was always in the group’s forward-thinking vision. And almost 20 years later, they seem to see things more clearly than ever.
Heavy things inform the subject matter on We Got It From Here—the election year, the Black Lives Matter movement, the group’s inner troubles and, of course, Phife Dawg’s death, are all recurring themes throughout the album. These are not the post-adolescent creatives that were traveling the paths of rhythm in the 1990s; this is an album driven by maturity, in both approach and ethos. Even 18 years later, Tribe is confident in who they are and, as such, they are emboldened to take risks. Luckily for the listener, they pull virtually all of it off.
Aside from the lengthy list of guest stars, which includes everyone from Jack White on “Ego” to Talib Kweli and Kanye West on “The Killing Season,” one of the most obvious distinctions for We Got It From Here… is the presence of Jarobi White. The off-and-on fourth member of ATCQ, White famously left the group shortly before the release of their sophomore album, The Low End Theory. Despite maintaining a presence onstage with the group and the Evitan project (with White teaming with former Black Sheep rhymer Dres), Jarobi hasn’t been a consistent presence on Tribe albums—so hearing his rapid-fire rhymes on “The Space Program” evokes a certain kind of knowing grin for longtime fans who’d wondered if a Jarobi verse would ever appear again on a Tribe album. And “The Space Program” is an uplifting-but-somber opener. Phife and Tip announce that “we gotta get it together for brothers / We gotta get it together for sisters,” and there “ain’t no space program for niggas.” Closing with a sample of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka from the 1972 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is another wistful reminder of who all we’ve lost in 2016.
But “We the People” is a dark banger that explicitly evokes the times—reflecting November 2016 better than anyone probably anticipated when the song was actually recorded. Voicing concerns over the current social climate, Q-Tip angrily rhymes that “VH-1 got a show for you to waste your time with” and blasts gentrification and the hate-speech pandering of the Trump campaign. Because of the song’s timing, it feels like a requiem for America as we stand at the dawn of the Trump presidency. Phife chimes in for the second verse, displaying the wit and brashness that always made him the best counter for Q-Tip: “The only one’s who’s hittin’ are the ones currently spittin.’”
Elton John’s lyric from “Bennie & the Jets” forms the foundation of “Solid Wall of Sound,” a standout track that features a stellar Busta Rhymes verse and the kind of grandiose production that would make Kanye West proud, before the song dissolves into a more intimate, keys-driven segment that features John himself singing alongside Tip. It segues into the rave-up “Dis Generation,” an anthemic tune that evokes classic Tribe; opening with Tip and Phife in full call-and-response mode over a muted guitar and slow-rolling bass groove. Jarobi joins in for the second verse and Busta makes another appearance, as the group addresses the kind of manufactured generational differences that have become such a hot-button topic in hip-hop.
Andre 3000’s admiration for A Tribe Called Quest has been well-documented of late, and the reclusive OutKast rapper spars well with Q-Tip on the bouncy “Kids.” Another song that attempts to examine the differences between generations, it’s a song that suggests empathy with the younger generation is paramount to recognizing where we’re all headed. “Kids don’t you know how all this shit is fantasy?” chants Three Stacks on the hook, before musing that “the grownups won’t own up—they stood on a corner like you once upon a time.” The pair recorded the unreleased “That’s Sexy” together in the early 2000s, but they both sound much more inspired this time around.
The squealing synths on “Melatonin” feel as warm as classic Stevie and is one of the finest productions from Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed. It’s a gorgeously lush track, with Tip referencing the state of the world again and musing on religion, rap music as release and poppin’ “melatonin like they Swedish fish.” The song closes with a rousing vocal from singer Abbey Smith and Q-Tip’s ad-libs. It’s another transcendent musical moment on the album that shows the level of craftsmanship that Tip and Tribe have always cultivated is in rare form on this particular album. These are seasoned pros. They know how to make great records.
“Black Spasmodic” feels like quirky Native Tongues of years past; as ATCQ and Consequence reference everything from the ever-present wack emcees to street life. Phife Dawg is in rare form here, one of many instances on the album that show that the Five Foot Freak had spent the majority of the past decade perfecting his craft. Throughout We Got It From Here…, Phife sounds more confident and creative than he did on Tribe’s final two albums of the 1990s, where he was marginalized by Consequence’s presence and his own frustrations with Q-Tip. But this feels like Phife as he sounded from 1991 to 1993, standing toe-to-toe with Tip, balancing each other sonically, musically and lyrically.
It makes “Lost Somebody” that much sadder to hear, as Q-Tip reflects on his dearly departed friend and what they meant to each other. Starting at the time little Malik’s parents met and when he was born (“Inside a cloud of sorrow, a silver lining and joy / It’s a bouncing baby boy, a king’s name they would employ / And before he even squeaks, it’s decided it’s Malik”) before reminiscing about how the two friends from Queens grew up together and how Tip sometimes treated Phife like a little brother to his own detriment. Jarobi’s verse is just as heartfelt; he rhymes about the times they shared battling in the park and how Jarobi (a professional chef) helped Phife to eat healthier (“I’mma flash forward well, took a trip to ATL / Cooking in the kitchen making sure my nigga eating well”). It’s the most personal moment on the album and the lilting hook adds to the mood. The song is never sad—just a beautiful requiem for a lost friend.
Anderson.Paak shows up for “Movin’ Backwards,” another midtempo groover that serves as a showcase for Jarobi on the opening verse and with his mantra “don’t be a backward-ass nigga,” with Paak providing the hook and opining that “cops are killing niggas everywhere—maybe we should get some guns, too,” and Q-Tip pondering “How can anybody be blind to racism?” It’s another moment of pensive topicality on the album, echoing similar sentiments as D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Common’s recently-released Black America Again.
“Conrad, Tokyo” is one of the album’s best moments, a midtempo, keys-driven lyrical showcase for Phife Dawg and Kendrick Lamar, who provides one of the album’s most kinetic verses. Name-checking the luxury hotel in Japan, the song is sonic perfection, with more warm synths providing a foundation as the hand-claps and live feel recalls the interludes throughout Tribe’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The track closes with jagged guitar from Jack White that segues into “Ego.” A track that’s reminiscent of earlier Tribe tracks built around a singular, simple concept like The Low End Theory’s “What?” and “Da Booty” from The Love Movement. Q-Tip raps about everything from vanity to insecurity to the need for outside validation as trappings of ego—an effectively clever way to address what drove A Tribe Called Quest apart in the first place, while also recognizing how it permeates virtually every human interaction.
“The Donald” features Busta Rhymes’ toasting over a laid-back groove and DJ Scratch’s precise scratching and mixing; with Phife Dawg’s rhymes coming in mid-song to remind you who the fuck he is. “Keep the iPhones home / Skill sets must be shown / Imma show you the real meaning of the danger zone,” Phife raps. Q-Tip chimes in to brag a bit about his little homeboy: “We gone celebrate him, elevate him / Papa had to levitate him / Give him his and don’t debate him / Top Dawg is the way to rate him.” In evoking both Donald Trump and paying tribute to Phife Dawg, the ghostly closing serves as a perfect summation of the album. It’s a timely bit of music that addresses contemporary fears while also managing to salute what Tribe has built and the joy that it’s bring. It’s an unwieldy sort of balancing act and one that it feels like only these guys could pull off as effectively.
There will be a lot of praise for We Got It From Here, Thanks 4 Your Service. Those who aren’t at all moved by this new release from a beloved rap group from yesteryear will blame the hosannas on nostalgia and sentimentality, but this doesn’t feel like an album driven by 1990s adulation. These guys sound inspired. They sound motivated. But most significantly, they sound like Tribe would sound in 2016. These songs are all driven by life experiences gathered over 20 years: friendships broken and repaired, political landscapes that have shifted three and four times since Y2K, and death. There’s something to be said for living, and how it shapes our art. Hip-hop has been consistently stereotyped as a genre driven by youthfulness; and that manifests in everything from its commodification to the way so many artists romanticize dying young—be it via an adversary’s gun or a prescription bottle. But this is life music. And A Tribe Called Quest has always made music for you to live to.
Anyone should be able to find some kind of inspiration in this 16-track double disc. Tribe came back one last time to accomplish what they set out to do more than 25 years ago. We are all much richer for joining them on their instinctive travels. Hip-hop has a broader palette because of A Tribe Called Quest. This is a perfect swan song and a great chance to salute them for all that they’ve done. 18 years later, Tribe can still inspire.
Thank you for your service, guys. We got it from here.