It’s been 18 years since A Tribe Called Quest last dropped a new album. As fate would have it, the comeback is right on time.
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the first rap album, and perhaps the first significant piece of art, to be released since Donald Trump was elected president. The opening two songs — the cautiously hopeful “The Space Program” and the caustic “We the People….” — will be music to the ears of wounded liberals … and maybe also gloating Trump supporters who love ATCQ, and anyone who falls somewhere in between (because who knows from demographics these days). The second track, alternately defiant and defeated, is especially prescient.
“We don’t believe you, ’cause we the people,” Q-Tip declares. Later, the somber chorus, and possibly our new reality, sets in: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go.” Elsewhere, We Got It From Here feels politically urgent in a way that previous Tribe albums are apolitically timeless. “The Killing Season” addresses police injustice; “Conrad Tokyo,” featuring hip-hop’s current voice of conscience Kendrick Lamar, is poignant nihilism. Early reviews are already calling Tribe’s new release “a product of its moment” and “a powerful protest album from start to finish.”
Those labels aren’t wrong, though they are reductive. There is more to examine on We Got It From Here than its politics. (After all, we’ll inevitably be inundated with cautiously hopeful and/or caustic rap music in the days to come.) We Got It From Here should be appreciated as an outlier in other ways: Not only is it a proper album, thoughtfully ordered in a way that demands it be consumed from start to finish, but it is also an exceedingly rare example of a successful, age-appropriate project from 40-something rappers.
One of those rappers, of course, is the late Phife Dawg. Before passing away last March at age 45, the rapper made amends with Q-Tip and recorded his vocals for Tribe’s revival. With the original gang back together, along with familiar friends (Consequence and Busta Rhymes), the temptation would be to herald We Got It From Here as vintage Tribe.
It isn’t. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Why you always gotta be the center of attention? That’s cool if you want to play Michael. But stop tryin’ to front like I’m Tito!”
That memorable Phife quote, from the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, encapsulates the conflict that created the group’s 18-year hiatus. Phife certainly had a point. On Tribe’s best work — 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, both universally beloved — Phife and Tip essentially shared equal footing. Those records represent vintage Tribe, the distinctly odd couple of an everyman and a philosopher trading rhymes over beats that fit the marriage: traditional boom-bap coupled with heady samples of jazz, funk, and beyond. The formula became less potent over Tribe’s subsequent releases as the two artists gradually veered off into different directions.
Phife was adored in large part because he was such a reliable, conventional MC — lyrical comfort food. Q-Tip, in comparison, was always more of a delicacy. After Tribe’s last album, 1998’s The Love Movement, Tip’s eccentricities were further accentuated on his three solo projects, each a little more strange than the last. When ATCQ dissolved, Tip learned how to play bass, drums, and keyboard. His range of collaborators widened; his tastes matured. Meanwhile, as a solo artist, Phife — bless his soul — was still delivering facile punch lines about sports.
It becomes easy to see, then, why it took so long for Tribe to get back together. The divorce, in retrospect, was unsurprising. Q-Tip evolved over time while Phife stubbornly remained in the same place. Staying put, it should be said, does have its rewards. Even before his death, Phife had become frozen in time, forever regarded as a forefather. But Tip never stopped experimenting as a progressive, if polarizing, leader — inspiring Kanye West, Pharrell, and many other acolytes of the next generation.
Said Busta Rhymes of Tip’s role on the new album: “He was great at being the director for all of us. He was great at conducting the whole picture.” Despite the long guest list, it is without a doubt Q-Tip’s brainchild (just count how many times his name appears in the credits). So, We Got It From Here is less a new Tribe record than it is a “Tip & Friends” compilation, on which Phife is only one of many contributors in service of the bandleader’s exceptional vision. Phife may not be Tito, but Tip is unquestionably MJ.
This is mostly a good thing. We Got It From Here is at once carefully polished and cheerfully messy. Even the most classic-sounding Tribe songs (“Whateva Will Be,” “Dis Generation”) are tempered by dissonant sounds. Further signs of purposeful craftsmanship, in samples and sequence, abound. And the group still draws a crowd. Elton John (“Solid Wall of Sound”) and Jack White (on three songs) are on the guest list, and somehow they belong. Kanye and Talib Kweli (both on “The Killing Season”) and André 3000 (“Kids”) are clearly eager to please. (Jarobi’s surprisingly numerous verses are about as good as you might expect from someone who hasn’t appeared on a Tribe album in 26 years.)
When the subject matter veers away from politics, it delves into relationship troubles (“Enough!!”) and insomniac thoughts (“Melatonin”). Grown-up stuff, written and performed by a rapper whose peerless voice and flow are sharper than ever. Whereas the most acclaimed Tribe albums felt like the effortless synergy of two youthful MCs, We Got It From Here feels very much like an examination of Q-Tip’s hyperactive middle-aged brain. (Imagine, for an uncharitable second, that the roles were reversed and it was Phife, not Tip, steering this ship. If we even had something to listen to, it would sound nothing like this.)
But We Got It From Here is not a Q-Tip album, and it will likely be remembered more fondly than any of his solo efforts. Phife’s role remains indispensable; Tip’s loftiness needs the occasional grounding. In his passing, it sounds as if Phife gently tugged Tip back toward the center — still leaning a bit left, yet close enough to be palatable to Tribe novices and natives alike.
This isn’t A Tribe Called Quest’s best album; it may not even be better than any that came before it. Whatever the reason, this is more of a philosopher’s work than an everyman’s. The tipping of the scale is noticeable. In fact, the “Phife role” is played mostly by Tip’s cousin Consequence, whose sleight of hand will satisfy your nostalgia for silly topical punch lines (“So Swaggy, he could’ve broke up with I-G / I ain’t surprised that they broke up on IG”). A reinvigorated Busta Rhymes brings patois and Golden Age gusto. These are the fastballs that make your off-speed stuff effective. In other words: We could use more bars, less electric guitars.
The urge to reconfigure that balance, however, is a sign of dwelling in a past that no longer exists — a time before rap freely opened its borders and long before Trump promised to build a wall. The best artists grow and adapt to the climate. In Q-Tip’s hands, We Got It From Here is not the Tribe of the ’90s, but the Tribe of the present and, maybe, the future. Phife will forever be missed. Tip is truly irreplaceable.