by Michael McKinney
In 1988, N.W.A released their debut record, Straight Outta Compton. It was, of course, highly controversial. Mitt Ahlerich, an assistant director to the FBI, released a letter condemning the sale of an album with “Fuck Tha Police” on it; Minnesota’s attorney general, Hubert Humphrey III, called it “frankly offensive,” denouncing its lyrics as “nothing but filth;” and the group was banned from performing at venues around the United States. It sold three million copies anyways. It was undoubtedly aided by the controversies it spawned, but they certainly weren’t unearned: Compton painted a shocking, oftentimes violent, depiction of urban life that found itself between wild fantasy and grounded reality. It managed to be both a bold, uncompromising vision of what the genre of hip-hop could do and a sure sign of societal collapse.
While much of America was still recovering from the crater Straight Outta Compton left, four New York teens were brewing up their own debut, a Queens yin to a Compton yang. A Tribe Called Quest released People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990, and it couldn’t have been any more different: whereas Compton was angry, hard-hitting, and laced with lead, Travels was upbeat, kind, and filled with lush, hazy, detailed instrumentals. Indeed, the group made music as a reaction to what they heard in contemporary hip-hop – Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the group’s longtime DJ, said in late 2015 that they “wanted the sound to be a journey, [bringing] forth a lot of melodic-based music – sort of that more poetic, but intellectual and fun aspect of creating music.” Members of N.W.A went on to make charged, sharp political records and, elsewhere, defined the sonics of the West Coast; Q-Tip’s crew, on the other hand, made blissed-out, youthful odes to dance and love. As Phife Dawg, reflecting upon the record’s 25th anniversary, put it: “We pretty much were always into being ourselves. We didn’t wanna be anybody else.”
After an eighteen-year run and three classic records, they called it quits. To put it simply, the group’s fame made it difficult to maintain their friendships. But that fire slowly rekindled, and upon reuniting for a show to promote Travels on its 25th anniversary, it finally happened. The group started putting together tracks in Q-Tip’s New Jersey studio, creating what would ultimately be the quartet’s final record. And, in a way, the timing made sense. After all, on their introduction, Tribe promoted Afrocentrism, positivity and originality in the face of “a lot of James Brown [samples],” Straight Outta Compton (which actually inspired The Low End Theory) and “a lot of niggas talking about gold chains.” With We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, those same ideas apply – just replace “James Brown” with “Kill Bill” and Compton with The Life of Pablo or any other earth-shattering hip-hop release and you’re set.
But there’s a critical difference between their first three records and their latest, and it rears its head right at the start – the first thing heard is a sample from 1974 Blaxploitation movie Willie Dynamite calling for us to “get our shit together.” This record, even if it weren’t their most overtly political, would at least be their most urgent; whereas songs on Travels or The Low End Theory concerned themselves with – valid and important – topics like date rape, consumerism, and STDs, the first three tracks alone on We got it from Here tackle gentrification, xenophobia, and racial stereotyping. Even the more upbeat or beautiful numbers are like this: “Melatonin” contrasts drug addiction with some of the most gorgeous singing on the record; “Movin Backwards” sees Q-Tip focusing on racial profiling while Anderson .Paak keeps the track airborne; and “The Killing Season” addresses police brutality atop aching strings.
For all the denser, darker, and knottier themes, though, We got it from Here isn’t relentlessly political à la Ice Cube or Public Enemy. Sure, it’s charged – but it’s more a conversation with an old friend than it is a brick through your window. Whereas The Bomb Squad brought their characteristically riotous beats to both acts, helping produce classics in the early ‘90s, Q-Tip brings trademark Tribe into 2016. “The Space Program” showcases a slowly-building beat that starts out with just enough – keys, drums, bass – only to throw in guitars, claps, and an organ all at the right moments; “Lost Somebody” makes do with skittering drums and a piano courtesy of Can (“Halleluhwah”); elsewhere, “Melatonin” has an elegantly subdued guitar playing underneath whirling synths and a bedrock of drums and bass. By and large, though, the beats here form a haze. Outros feel like interludes; noisy guitars bleed from one song to the next; pianos and voices and synths fall in and out of the beats in ways alternatively disarming and disconcerting. But that works for them. Hazes have always been a forte of theirs, after all.
It works for reasons beyond the beats, though. Both Q-Tip and Phife Dawg deliver wonderful verses here; as always, Tip’s flow makes even his (rare) subpar verses enjoyable and Phife’s humor, patois, and earthiness help keep the tracks grounded. The biggest surprise, though, is Jarobi White, who lends several show-stealing verses despite being dormant since their 1990 debut. His verses on “Lost Somebody” and “Movin Backwards,” both uncoincidentally highlights, are some of the best here, with the former being wonderfully personal and the latter having a great musicality to it, keeping his flow elastic while the beat explodes underneath. And that playfulness, that willingness to toss all sorts of patterns at a verse, is what makes for some of the best moments here. All three emcees will do it, and it’s for the record’s benefit; the group’s internal struggles are clearly behind them, replaced with a newfound delight in rhyming.
The best example of this joy, though, comes from unofficial member and loose cannon Busta Rhymes. Whenever he’s on a track here, whether it’s two-sentence bursts or full verses, you can practically hear the grin plastered on his face. When he bursts onto “Mobius,” his presence alone turns a calm beat into an energetic track. He seems to be savoring every moment he’s got here, realizing full well that this was billed as the final Tribe record: he doesn’t waste a second, making the best use of the spots he’s got. Sometimes, the rest of the crew catches on: “Dis Generation,” another highlight, sees lines getting tossed from one emcee to another, putting their camaraderie in the forefront; “Solid Wall of Sound” has Q-Tip, Phife, and Busta employing the same trick, if to a slightly lesser degree; and when Q-Tip says that he knows “[his] shit’s cold” on “We the People…,” he can’t hide his smile.
It’s a testament to the emcees and their production that We got it from Here manages to be such a joyous affair. Phife Dawg’s passing looms over the record, as one would expect, but instead of sounding dim and morose, it manages to instead work as a proper send-off for the man. It leads to some heart-wrenching moments – Q-Tip raps a verse as Phife on “Black Spasmodic” (“If you don’t believe me, Tip, there’s truly life after death / So refer to the Biggie covers and shout out my Trini brothers / And please check in on my mother / Malik Izaak, call me shorty”) and shares stories with Jarobi on “Lost Somebody” (“Have you ever lost somebody / Way before you got to dream? / No more crying, he’s in sunshine / He’s alright now, see his wings”). But this isn’t an album ‘about’ Phife’s death, and for much of the record, he’s as on-point as everyone else, taking joy in being in the same room rapping with the people he was with a quarter-century earlier.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The final three numbers here come off as forgettable, uninteresting, and too long by half respectively; most of the big-name collaborations are more interesting in theory than in practice; and when Q-Tip is off (“Enough!!”), he’s easily the worst part of the track. But, by and large, We got it from Here is a triumph. It’s simultaneously a comeback, post-death, and political record that manages to sidestep any of those pigeonholes in favor of what they’ve always done: hip-hop that’s about joy in rhythm and ecstasy in those around you. And in a year where the some of the biggest releases were deeply insular and frigid, with major names across genre lines delving ever deeper into their sounds to create singular works, maybe an exuberant optimism is exactly what was needed. A Tribe Called Quest delivered that here, just as they did twenty-six years earlier, and that’s something worth celebrating.
RIYL: Busta Rhymes, Common, Consequence, De La Soul, The Roots
Favorite Tracks: 3, 5, 7, 12, 13