It’s been eighteen long years since A Tribe Called Quest released an album (‘The Love Movement’), however, their latest offering, ‘We Got it From Here’, makes it abundantly clear that the spaced-out jazz-rap aficionados still know how to kick it. Despite sticking to their rock-steady blueprint of pensive rhymes and groovy soundscapes, the contextual poignancy of Phife Dawg’s death and the volatility of the American political landscape imbue ‘WGIFH’ with an urgency unlike any other Tribe LP.
With that in mind, ‘WGIFH’ plays like a funky self-help audiobook for the post-electoral apocalypse and beyond; causes for concern and celebration are well balanced, demonstrating that the Tribe’s verbal proficiency is one that transcends age.
Problems such as racism and gentrification are motifs that run throughout the LP, however – they are addressed right from the outset. The opener, ‘The Space Program’, eases us in with some playful keys – yet the overall message is something altogether darker. Verses from Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi articulate the oppression faced by African-American communities across the US, are punctuated with the hook ‘There ain’t a space program for niggas’, and are followed by Tip’s sardonic utterance as the track winds down: ‘Imagine if this shit was really talkin’ about space, dude’. Despite mimicking a Quasimoto-like rumination – Tip’s closing words eradicate any merriment conveyed by the harrowing metaphor.
However, the Tribe’s societal observations – although potent – never err on the side of aggression; it is reason that fortifies their messages. On ‘We The People’, Tip chooses to be diplomatic: ‘You in the killing-off-good-young-nigga mood / When we hungry we eat the same fucking food’. ‘Whateva Will Be’ continues in this vein, with a slight change of tack. While Phife addresses White America with ‘Are you amused by our struggles? / The English that’s broken?’ – Jarobi addresses a different audience, offering advice. The bars ‘Mouth translate / Happens organically / The media relates it what it thinks it sees’ are followed by the verses final command: ‘Come on – listen’. Jarobi, here, is not merely asking you to listen to him, but rather to listen to organic sources of information – an excellent double-entendre that guards against false information displayed online.
ATCQ’s ability to amalgamate literary devices with shrewd, social examinations is a staggering feat of lyricism that often manifests on ‘WGIFH’; however, it is the chemistry between the various MCs that really stands out. Q-Tip had one caveat when making the album: All MCs involved with the project had to come and spit their verses at his home studio. In the words of ATCQ’s frequent collaborator, Busta Rhymes: “Everybody spat their rhymes in front of each other. We were throwing ideas around together.” Upon discovering Tip’s resolute (and very nineties) commandment, the conversational trading of bars throughout the LP has an identifiable cause; the immediacy of ATCQ’s collaborative spirit injects their work with a powerful dialogue – and indeed a refreshing counterpoint to the spiralling monologues delivered up by today’s post-internet MCs.
Despite dedicating much of their studio time to tackle America’s most pertinent issues – namely, racism and Trump – their entire net of causes still spreads far and wide. The André 3000 assisted ‘Kids’ attempts to bridge the seemingly irreconcilable gap between parents and their offspring, with 3 Stacks delivering an enigmatic, ‘A Life in the Day of Benjamin André’-style verse to match the hypnotic synths. ‘Melatonin’, on the other hand, puts the spotlight on prescription drugs, and more specifically, our propensity to rationalise their usage in the name of just about anything: ‘This one I’m taking when I feel sad (just one, yeah)’. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. ‘Dis Generation’ chooses to magnify the good in modern MCs, while ‘Solid Wall Of Sound’ serves as a triumphant ode to ATCQ and their reunion, bolstered with vocals from Elton John and some gentle strumming by Jack White.
The fact that I haven’t yet addressed the production speaks volumes about the album’s lyrical content, however, as you would expect – Q-Tip and friends do an immaculate job. The production draws on a dense array of sonics; everything from rock to reggae is reconciled with versatile, funky basslines, while BIGYUKI’s jaunty keys combat the lo-fi, nineties sound. Arguably the dizziest peak of the album’s production appears on ‘Mobius’. The track’s title alludes to the German scientist, August Mobius, and his famous geometric discovery – the Mobius strip – a surface that appears to have two sides, yet, upon inspection, only has one; the two sides transition seamlessly. This may seem somewhat immaterial, but bear with me. ‘Mobius’ begins with a tribute to fellow Queensbridge natives and former label-mates, Mobb Deep; Tip dials in a pared-down drum pattern that Havoc would be proud of, while Consequence comes out swinging with some of Prodigy’s famous bars: ‘I break bread, ribs, hundred dollar bills’. Before the verse is over, however, the beat begins to warp. As the drums drop out, a sporadic guitar fleck is extended into a beautifully obscure sample from prog rock outfit, Gentle Giant, paving the way for some blistering bars from Busta. Only Q-Tip can conduct a seamless transition between Mobb Deep and progressive rock all in one track – only Q-Tip.
However, despite the LP’s musical excellence that I have detailed just about everywhere, it is the tributes to Phife Dawg that will stick with the fans. ‘Lost Somebody’ finds Q-Tip pouring his heart out over a tear-jerking piano riff, elucidating the finer details of his friendship with Phife: ‘Malik, I would treat you like little brother that would give you fits / Despite all the spats and shits cinematically documented / The one thing I appreciate, you and I, we never pretended / Rhymes we would write it out, hard times fight it out / Gave grave face to face, made it right / Now you riding out’.
Despite the noticeable absence of Phife on many of the album’s sixteen tracks, his scholarly ways and boundless energy constantly manifest through his fellow tribesmen – and will continue to manifest –as they permeate the MCs of tomorrow.