Entire books could be written A Tribe Called Quest’s influence on hip-hop with their first three albums. To keep things brief, their focus on positivity and away from macho-violence has influenced Talib Kweli; their use of organic instruments with hiring Ron Carter (of Miles Davis fame) on “Verses from the Abstract” has influenced OutKast’s Andre 3000; their love of jazz rap as a whole has influenced Kendrick Lamar. All of whom appear on We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, and let me tell you: the very notion of hearing these artists collaborate would’ve been an impossible dream a year ago, and here we are.
And yet, I was weary at first because this has all the hallmarks of being over-rated before anyone’s had the chance to actually hear it: the allure of the comeback album, the death album, the socio-political album.
The most obvious comparison is De La Soul’s And the Anonymous Nobody released earlier this year. Both De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were part of the Native Tongues; both released colorful debut albums, unimpeachable albums in 1991 and 1993 (where De La Soul hopped on the jazz rap train made possible by A Tribe Called Quest), flawed albums in 1996, and whose respective discographies got less interesting until both went on hiatuses until this year. (Though I might as well plug here that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t heard Q-Tip’s solo albums: “Won’t Trade” from The Renaissance is easily catchier than anything he’s done with Tribe thanks to Q’s crate-digging unearthing a great Ruby Andrews song, while “Feelin’” from Kamaal the Abstract is a fantastic blood rush thanks to its heady electric guitar.) Yet, whereas De La Soul moved away from hip-hop with their album this year, what, with partnerships with the ex-frontman of the Talking Heads and tracks that seem to be influenced by their collaborations with Gorillaz, A Tribe Called Quest’s newest is more traditional. Hell, the bass-line of “Ego” or the keyboard hook of “The Space Program” sound like they would be right at home on either The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders.
And whereas De La Soul’s rappers mellowed out with age (not that they were ever the fastest or knottiest), Q-Tip has only improved with age. On debut People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, he had some awkward phrasing of certain lines: “A thought crossed the mind, her, a bimbo” and “And what do you know, my wallet, I forget”, which were structured that way to fit the rhyme scheme. But while something like “Excursions” didn’t seem possible back in 1990, something like “The Space Program” wouldn’t have seemed possible in the 1990s, ya dig?
Just hearing him leave no space unused in the opening verse — “’Cause we never bore, responding to the ready crowd’s roar / And promoters try to hit us with the art of war / We about our business, we not quitters / Not bullshitters, we deliver — we go-get it / Don’t be bitter ‘cause we not just niggas” — floored me. The high continues with “We The People…” which sports a massive synth-bass, though Q-Tip’s vocal acrobatics are unnecessary, “Niggas in the hood living in a FISH-bowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a SHIT-hole.” (He does something similar on closer “The Donald”, not about Donald Trump as one would expect given the title and the times; it was written before the election.) And both opening tracks have commendable choruses: the rallying “The Space Program”; the darkly parodic “We The People…”
Elsewhere, Andre 3000 and Q-Tip strike up an incredible chemistry on “Kids…” and Q-Tip’s second verse on “Melanin” has him effortlessly gliding over the starry synths and atmosphere created by the backing vocals of Marsha Ambrosius. (And be sure to check out the guitar solo that starts around the 2:20 mark that leads into Abbey Smith’s bridge; simply understatedly gorgeous stuff.) And “Lost Somebody” has a keyboard sample that comes from the most unlikely of places: Can’s “Halleluhwah”.
It won’t be unexpected for critics to lament the filler. It is a double album, after all, but it’s also a double album in the same way Flaming Lips’ Embryonic or Vince Staples Summertime ’06 were double albums — at 60 minutes in length, this could have easily fit on one disc. (That’s actually four minutes shorter than their debut.) But even on the “lesser” tracks, there are plenty to sink your ears into: the snaky keyboard line under Consequence’s verse of “Mobius”; the bass-line of “Whateva Will Be.”
Other songs might be more easily distinguishable, but they’re also more problematic: an almost unrecognizable Kanye West is unfortunately delegated to chorus duty on “The Killing Season” that has some unfortunate effects obscuring Talib Kweli’s verse, and there was no thought given to the hand-off between Jarobi to Anderson .Paak on “Movin Backwards”. It’s likely due to the standards he’s set for himself in the past few years, but Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Conrad Tokyo” is a bit disappointing in how quickly it speeds by. It is impressive: “Devils and demons and Deuteronomy / Fumigate our economy,” but I can’t help but wish it was longer given the “empty space” of the rest of the track. Meanwhile, Q-Tip’s rapping might’ve improved, but the way he talks sex leaves something to be desired: “Is it an issue if I make you nut?” is how he starts “Enough!!” before going on to say “You’re making me hardened to a stone or granite statue” (banal) and “My thrust bust artery” (awful imagery) and for some reason bringing the word “sodomy” into the fold.
Elsewhere, “Solid Wall of Sound” has the catchiest choruses of the album, and the way they repurpose “Bennie and the Jets” recalls how they repurposed “Walk on the Wild Side” for “Can I Kick It”; treating Elton John’s lines as the perfect set-up for a call and response (“Gonna hear electric music / What you gonna hear? / Solid walls of sound”). That being said, the song mostly rests on those choruses, or the starpower — they bring in Jack White for a barely audible acoustic guitar and let the real Elton John sing the coda, which, regrettably, might’ve been better had they given it to someone whose voice has any power to it (Elton John’s voice has gone by way of Paul McCartney, unfortunately). And the verse of “Solid Wall of Sound” nicely juxtaposes Phife Dawg and Busta Rhymes’ more deliberate lines with Q-Tip’s speedier flow, but that juxtaposition is really all there really is to the verse (“Yo, ATCQ, Massive and crew / Bars to any beat, we beat the beat for true / Massengale MC’s, you smell like pussy stew” is how Phife opens).
All told, there’s more flaws here than there is greatness. But with each of Tribe’s albums up until now, it’s pointless to dissect it track by track when really, it should be taken as one, singular groove (made up of smaller grooves). And the question remains the same: can you kick it?
(Yes you can!)
EDIT (September 27, 2017): I underrated this one, and it bothers me by how much – it’s hard to name a better comeback album, and it isn’t just one of my most-played records of 2016, it’s also my most-played A Tribe Called Quest record. The flaws are more than the ones I named: “Enough!!” really isn’t anything besides the hook (replete with a hidden Syd), and if Q-Tip’s verse is problematic, at least it’s more memorable than Jarobi’s; the beat of “Kids…” might be the worst of the bunch, relying heavily on bringing together two of the greatest rappers from two of the greatest acts together on the same track (though they rap fine, and I love that Andre 3000 thinks that Red Lobster biscuits are the bee’s knees because he’s just like you and me in that regard!); “Mobius” has such a hooky piano line that I wish that the song was extended beyond Consequence and Busta Rhymes dropping their verses; they don’t even try to blend Jack White’s solo on “Lost Somebody” with the rest of the song (or when it re-appears at the end of “Conrad Tokyo”), to say nothing that it takes forever to get going. But at the same time, a lot of those flaws are part of the album’s charming ambition: the mere prospect of integrating Jack White into A Tribe Called Quest; short tracks that let Andre 3000 or Kendrick Lamar or Anderson .Paak or Busta Rhymes do their thing. To say nothing of the greatness: the choruses of “The Space Program” that feel like they could go on for even longer, the synth-bass of “We The People….” and how loud the drums hit; the Elton John sample of “Solid Wall of Sound”; the entirety of “Melatonin.” Also, Q-Tip inflecting his voice for his verse on “We The People….” has warmed to be my favorite part of that verse.