The ol’ “come out of retirement” trope is so fucking tired. It’s a dumb byproduct of marketing or narcissism, and it doesn’t matter which one because the results are uniform fucking failures as sure as the sun rises and sets. So two days after a disastrous election you’re reminded that the Tribe has a new album out, and for some reason you put it on. Some half-skit sample comes on. You roll your eyes. A second one comes on. You make a wanking motion. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, who is dead, say “we gotta go left and not right.” You audibly laugh at the audacity of this, so that you are now rolling your eyes and making a wanking motion and laughing all at the same time.
And you catch your breath just as the keyboard pulls you out of it, and realize the cold open is actually, well, pretty good. Maybe this is going somewhere good. As the two trade off with “let’s make somethin’ happen” you realize you have had a very, very long week; by the time Tip finishes what’s – if not among the best – then certainly one of the most high-skill verses of 2016, you find the reason you put the damn thing on in the first place: catharsis.
Trying to give a new Tribe album the fair criticism
it deserves is like trying to enter North Korea through the southern border. Notably,
this Tribe album, which was the
benefactor of impeccable timing, an all-time political misfire, the death of a
member, and the 18
years that passed since their last one. That bears discussion and all, but none of it should
matter. And yet you know there’s a bunch
of “kids these days” types who are salivating over the chance to actually write this criticism after watching samplers get relegated to the sidelines. There is nothing more astonishing than the
old boy’s critic-industrial complex that enshrines the musical heroes of their
youth and know their prime coincided with when their average reader was a fetus. This release is a complete fucking mess when it comes to the objectivity crisis
I always swore I’d avoid,
but really, anyone who’s ever heard one of the Tribe’s albums is waist deep in
the muck of it already. So 25
years from now, some high schooler will be on their device wondering “ATCQ over
Lil’ Yachty’s debut? Really?” and therein carry on the critic’s circle of life. Be warned.
But none of us – no one – expected a significant album out of We Got it From Here. Is it conditioning? Or that whole “Phife is dead, you guys” part? LL Cool J had “a comeback” after 2 years. Eminem was “on hiatus” for 5. What’s the appropriate word for 18? “Exhumed?” If you tore the cellophane off The Love Movement on release day, you now look less like the protesters in the news and more like the guy from the preceding Charles Schwab commercial. If you grabbed Paths of Rhythm, tack on another 8 years. You’re not exactly the target demo for the music biz anymore. But that’s fine! You’ll like the album – a lot – because Tip, and Phife, and those samplers, and the chemistry, the creativity – all the little details that made every Tribe album special – they’re still there yet this one is just so current.
Tribe just never stood still, you know? Paths of Rhythm was spry but heavy on drums, Low End Theory was all jazz, then it went a little more electric by Midnight Marauders, and so on and so forth. We Got it From Here is all rock. Which of course means guitars – and there are a lot of guitars (refer to multiple Jack White credits) – but it’s still more portable than just saying “rock.” They sampled “Benny and the Jets,” for pete’s sake - Tip rocks out while Elton hammers the piano, Phife drops his bars in an actual Trini accent (Drake take note), then Tip takes it back with, uh, a Pro Tools solo? Let’s go with that. The chemistry that Tribe is beloved for is still there, and the lighter parts are just so damn fun.
That’s the old shit people love Tribe for – songs about music (“Solid Wall of Sound”), or sex jams (“Enough!!”), or just shooting bull with their dudes (“Dis Generation”), Busta Rhymes, etc. Yet there’s twice as much new stuff to appreciate them for. And there is no tiptoeing around it: this is a deeply political and cynical record, moreso than any other in the Tribe’s catalog. The first single “We The People.....” is the most topical, with a very literal interpretation of the entire Trump candidacy (remember: candidacy, not yet Presidency) distilled into the rallying cry of “all you black folk, you must go.” It’s weird, it should be unexpected yet Tip feels like he’s done it his whole career.
The outrage here is important but it’s the darts in the verses that hurt. The first line on the dancehall-inspired “Whateva Will Be” might be the sharpest: “so am I supposed to be dead or doin’ life in prison? Just another dummy caught up in the system.” Of course that’s just words – and these messages really need to be heard, in every sense. On gentrification in “The Space Program,” Tip quips “imagine if this shit were really talkin’ bout space, dude.” It’s a bullet straight at the Elon Musks, and the Peter Thiels, and the Tim Drapers. Plutocracy is as plutocracy does; you don’t have to be a minority to realize you’ll still be standing in the burning hellscape watching the rockets blast off after the meteor hits.
If the younger political thinkers/musicians out there – the Vic Mensas and the Kendrick Lamars – seem more DeRay Mckesson, then Q-Tip and Phife sound like Obama. There’s always urgency and passion from each of them, but there’s almost this lack of affliction from the latter. It’s outrage – to be sure – but it’s not anger. Is it the spoils of age? Or a cognizant decision to pursue a different message to a different audience? It’s hard to say. Kendrick posits at the end of To Pimp a Butterfly that “once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a black man in this country,” but if he can sound as good as this in a few years he’ll have nothing to worry about. Racism, sexism, inequality, gentrification, poverty… there may be different orders of magnitude, but we’re all affected. This is serious stuff but there’s something that’s either compassionate or assuring about hearing it from an elder statesman. Like Obama, when Tip speaks, you listen; you want to listen.
But there’s missteps too, particularly on the second disc. Which isn’t dreadful, it levels out to just “OK.” There’s salvation via Anderson .Paak – a name that if you don’t know already you will soon – who absolutely murders “Movin Backwards” in a moment of pathos going against the outrage of the first disc. But then “The Killing Season” features Talib Kweli on what sounds like a leftover cut from The Beautiful Struggle, which is a weird album to turn to for inspiration – it’s 12 years old and aged less-than-gracefully because of its relentless syncopation. “Lost Somebody” – however moving – is ultimately the same issue. It sounds like an early-aughts Def Jam ballad which is a vibe I do not understand when the Native Tongues and the Ummah and the Soulquarians absolutely dominated the field when it came to soul crossover. “Mobius” has a Chronic:2001 feel to it. This shit is old, and while 18 years between albums bears repeating, it’s not an excuse. It might be a reason.
But then you start the record over and get back to the nitpicky, detailed stuff they did really, incredibly well. Suggesting an album was carried by its basslines is some arcane-ass rhetoric but it’s impossible to overlook. Like the hints of Kanye’s “New Slaves” in the opening stanza of “We The People…..” before getting into the sub-bass, or the drums. And holy shit, those drums – snares that echo for so long they pile on top of each other while they’re still ringing a bar later. They say producers’ producers are the ones that can splice a drum patch, so Q-Tip must be screening calls from 40 and Metro Boomin’ this week. (Although – the presence of a certain air raid siren makes me wonder if these are a relic from The Ummah.) Overdubbing hand claps before the third verse of “Space Program” is that renaissance song-building that’s capable of making good records great. The attention to detail is magnificent, even by the Tribe’s high standards. And yeah, the second disc might be a tad stale, but the melodies are all invariably different; meanwhile the highlights of the first disc go toe-to-toe with anything in 2016.
There’s a question that’s so inevitable we’ll get it over with: is their swan song the Tribe at their peak? The samples are the most refreshed, and there’s zero doubt this is the height of their technical ability on the mic. The content is urgent and topical, even a different election result wouldn’t diminish the gravitas. Could We Got it From Here actually be their legacy? Well… no. No! The Tribe has *two* albums that are nearly flawless from top to bottom, and flawless this is not. But that’s a testament to their remarkable run – and if nothing else We Got it From Here cements the Tribe as the best group hip hop has ever produced. There is no “short list” discussion on this anymore.
Who knows the next time someone will do a record like this. Don’t bet on it anytime soon – history reminds us the odds are against it. Which sucks, yet those odds are why everyone loves a good comeback story. Something has to be overcome. On Sunday, pro wrestler Goldberg comes back from a 12 year break (sorry, “just” a 12 year break), which I only know because of the marketing. Friends tell me he’s going to lose, which they only know because it’s scripted. But nothing would change if it wasn’t – he’s going to lose - but think I’ll root for him anyways.
A Tribe Called Quest: We
Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Rest in Peace to Phife and Dilla
notsomethingstructural (aka @nss_ds) is an amateur listicle purveyor and the author of “The 25 Best Hip Hop Albums of All Time”. He co-authored the record-setting #WorstSongBracket and is terrible at Twitter.