Too many have written this one off as a dry-run for Low End Theory, but that makes no sense considering these are different albums, as different as De La Soul is Dead was to Three Feet High and Rising.
Rapping-wise, I might understand where these people are coming from: Q-Tip, who’s responsible for the bulk of the album (Phife Dawg gets two verses and that’s it) will get better from here, and he’s mostly relying on his smooth voice to carry him through; the Yoda-ing of the last line of the second verse “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” always bothers me (“And what do you know, my wallet, I forget”) and some of his rhymes are just that and nothing more and if the beat stops so you have to focus on them, that fact just becomes clear (ie. the Godawful first half of the second verse of “Luck of Lucien” and “Bonita Applebum”’s “I have the right tactics / And if you need ‘em, I got crazy prophylactics”; in my experience, the best condoms are the standard ones that don’t try to do anything fancy like glow in the dark or let you and your partner experience ridiculous temperatures down there). But since A Tribe Called Quest has always been a beat-centric group, those peoples’ criticism makes no sense – this one’s less interested with jazz samples, sure, which means the people who started off at Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders and got here backwards will be disappointed.
But you shouldn’t be: this is a really colorful record, as you can probably tell from the cover art: all manner of instruments make an appearance here and Ali Shaheed Muhammad adds in some light record scratching for good measure. Enjoy the sitar during the hook and lose yourself right after to the lounge jazz piano during the verses of “Bonita Applebum.” But the best example is “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, my personal favorite, whose brief bookending sections places you in Southern America during the summer, opening with a faraway acoustic mariachi act and closing with a concatenation of random Spanish words that everyone who can’t speak Spanish can still speak. And beautiful descending guitar line too, that doubles as the song’s hook since the gang’s idea of a chorus at this time is just repeating the same line over and over. And though playing “Can I Kick It” will always make me space out and think of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” it was still a good idea to push the acoustic strums way way way back to let that two note bass come out even more. The same happens when Stevie Wonder’s immortal horn line comes up on “Footprints.”
Frankly, I disagree completely with Rolling Stone’s Chuck Eddy’s critique, “this is one of the leastdanceable rap albums ever – there’s no forward motion.” Yeah, no: there’s plenty of forward motion: mostly thanks to the bass (especially on “Luck of Lucien,” aided by guitar chords and horns, and “Youthful Expression,” aided by flickers of organ), such that though the album best be taken on a song-by-song basis, listening to it all at once isn’t too difficult. That said, not much happens on the album’s final stretch: “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)” uses this annoying “Yah!” sample that brings you out of its rhythm and nothing else happens musically; I wish the sample used as “Mr. Muhammad”’s chorus was given room to do something; ditto the Jimi Hendrix sample that opens “Go Ahead in the Rain”; the cholesterol-conscious “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” is its humour and nothing else (way too long). The heavier drums of “Description of a Fool” is practically a wake-up call after all that. But one of my favorite tracks that I haven’t mentioned yet and rarely see mentioned is “Pubic Enemy,” whose first verse is my favorite on the album, tackling the subject matter of STD’s in the humorous way that you’d expect Q-Tip to from the punny title alone. The best part: “Suddenly, she’s been distracted / By something that has been attracted / She poked and poked and smacked at it / Then she broke down and she scratched it.”
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: I don’t care if an album is influential or not, I care if it’s good. And there’s enough good stuff on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythmthat it’s a good record; better than Low End Theory, if you’d ask me.