Timeless and Timely

ATCQ Transcends Expectations with their latest album

A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most important groups to leave a stamp on hip-hop culture since the days of Grandmaster Flash. To say that they are legendary would not suffice. When ATCQ dropped their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990, music was forced to shift. At the time, the biggest names in hip-hop were Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim. By toying with samples and lyrical delivery in ways that no predecessors had, this group changed the pace of rap music forever. After an 18 year hiatus, one relatively controversial documentary and the sad death of member Phife Dawg, A Tribe Called Quest returned with an album that flawlessly tiptoes between modern mainstream rap and their nostalgic classic ‘boom-bap’ sound. We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is one of the best albums of 2016, even with the odds stacked against the archetypal crew.

It is a massive victory for music that a group like A Tribe Called Quest can still release a critically-acclaimed LP in 2016. Their last album, The Love Movement (1998), remains a cult classic to this day, but received mostly mediocre responses when it first came out. Since 1998, there has been no true discussion of new music from the original lineup, even though they have reunited to tour a couple of times since then. In 2011, a documentary entitled Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest was released, which chronicled the history of the group from their beginnings to their downfall. A large portion of this film covered the overwhelming amount of success that ATCQ saw in the 90s, and more specifically how co-front man Phife Dawg could not always celebrate this success due to a diabetic diagnosis in 1990. As Phife’s health began to decline over the years, so did his role in the creative process of crafting albums. As Phife’s presence in the group began to fade, so did their quintessential sound. While Q-Tip was able to build a career from his roots in A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg never truly had the opportunity to prove his depth of talent to the world, and really fell out of the spotlight not too long after the year 2000. 

When Phife Dawg died due to complications with diabetes last year at the age of 45, the world did not know that A Tribe Called Quest had recorded one last full length album as a reunited crew. It wasn’t until August 2016, about six months after the death of the legend, that LA Reid announced to the public that another album by ATCQ was imminent. Being that Phife Dawg’s life and career were both cut so short, it was nearly impossible to not root for the group to drop a classic album once again. As history has shown, reunion albums tend to produce extreme results, whether hit or miss, but even the most optimistic fan never would have predicted just how great this comeback would be.

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On We Got it From Here, ATCQ returns to their original three man lyrical lineup for the first time since Jarobi White left the group in 1991. Unfortunately, the group’s house producer, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, was unable to co-produce the record due to other career obligations. Q-Tip & Phife Dawg return in full force, bouncing countless rhymes off of each other as though they never stopped working together. Compensating for the loss of Ali Shaheed, Q-Tip stands in as the executive producer of the whole record, which actually serves as support for why parts of every song sound like they could be 20 years old. To contradict that feeling, Q-Tip does a great job layering his beats with drum tracks that fortify his influence in hip-hop, somehow touching each instrumental with a modern flavor.

To add to the hype and excitement surrounding the liner notes alone, Q-Tip, Phife & Jarobi are joined on several tracks by their good friends and commonly re-appearing features from the past, Consequence and Busta Rhymes. While Consequence and Busta sound as though they haven’t abandoned their method of lyrical presentation since 1995, both prove their worth multiple times. Every time one of the two makes an appearance, they manage to appropriately evoke the best parts of classic rap alongside the iconic front men. A Tribe Called Quest are well-known for inventing the fast-paced give-n-take verse, and every time they pull off their signature delivery, it sounds smooth and effortless. One of the most significant factors playing into the success of A Tribe Called Quest is their ability to flaunt their chemistry, constantly reminding their audience that they work better when they all rap together. To build a sense of modernity into this album, the trio reaches into other dimensions of rap for a large variety of infamous guest verses highlighted elsewhere on the record.

For example, Outkast’s own Andre 3000 appears early on in “Kids”, tossing around his signature complex rhyme scheme and wordplay with the king of give-n-take cipher verses, Q-Tip. The song is light and fun, with lyrical content revolving around misbehaving kids and adolescent rebellion, but also stands out as a great example of how some of the album sounds like it could be 15-20 years old. The beat itself is really well done, and undoubtedly performs as a perfect picture of progression, even for a production master like Q-Tip. 

In order to combat the cliche of being boxed-in by an outdated sound, Tip, Phife & Jarobi recruit modern legend Kendrick Lamar for a vicious and politically charged guest verse. The Kendrick-featured track, “Conrad Tokyo”, is maybe the only time on the album that a guest verse outshines the actual trio. Also appearing on the record is one of last year’s biggest breakthrough artists, Anderson .Paak.  The fact that one of the most famous rappers of today can combine creative forces with the heroes of yesterday really only goes to show that this album actually transcends time. Not only does We Got it From Here prove that time is insignificant, it tackles the role of a timeless classic from first listen.

If the aforementioned features fail to peak the interest of  more pop-oriented rap fans, the group includes a feature from Kanye West as well. If anything, the Kanye feature only proves that anyone in hip-hop with even the most basic knowledge on the history of the culture would be idiotic to decline the opportunity to work with A Tribe Called Quest. In other words, it is likely that ATCQ were able to specifically hand-pick the features on this record without the worry of being turned down. Even if this album failed to exceed expectations, Kanye West, Anderson .Paak & Kendrick Lamar likely grew up avidly listening to ATCQ, making it a huge honor to have the chance to work with them. 

Even with all of the given information about star-studded cameos, don’t let the liner notes and feature verses across the record distract from the main point here. As heard on album highlight, “Dis Generation” (Feat. Busta Rhymes), Q-Tip & Phife repeatedly prove that they haven’t lost their chemistry. After the group disbanded years before this album, it is inspirational to hear the front man duo playing lyrical tag on so many songs. Rather than each taking a standard 16-bar verse, they often spit four-six bars each and then pass the mic to the other. Not only does this pinpoint a nostalgia that A Tribe Called Quest fans have been chasing for 18 years, it reinforces the friendship between the rappers, creating a positive atmosphere from front to back.

It is pretty tough to decide the ‘best’ song on the album. Every track sounds unique in its’ own light, and stands out as such, especially in a world where most of these songs should sound dated. Of course, it is all a matter of opinion, but perhaps the most important track heard on We Got it From Here is the album closer “The Donald”. Possibly due to the fact that A Tribe Called Quest has successfully maintained one of the most positive contextual and musical dispositions in the history of hip-hop, the death of Phife Dawg remains unaddressed for the majority of the record. Even on the finale “The Donald”, there is no direct tribute to the fallen MC, but the last two and a half minutes of the album subtly pay respects to him. 

“The Donald” wraps up the same way as the group’s classic cut, “Description of A Fool” (1990), which served as the closer of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Both of these songs transition from full length verses into instrumental breaks that are played out for over two minutes. On the more recent, “The Donald”, the beat that drives the verse at the beginning of the track is stripped down, overdubbed by Q-Tip spitting couplets of respect about his fallen partner. Each line stands as a boastful statement warning other MC’s to “step back, you don’t want no problems brother.” Q-Tip is one of the only artists alive that has the ability to execute a tribute and maintain the classic competitive elements of hip-hop culture simultaneously. In between each line, a sample echoes “Phife Dawg,” driving home the point that music lost one of the greats. Even if there are no words spoken about his death, it lingers as the perfect tribute—one that suits a lyrical beast like Phife impeccably.

A Tribe Called Quest have had a complicated history. Q-Tip has never truly left his life of fame, maintaining a massively successful career even since 1998. As for Jarobi White, he left the group in 1991, only to re-surface in 2016. The saddest story of all remains Phife Dawg and his slow decline. When Phife died in March of 2016, it seemed as though he died unfulfilled and still capable of reaching great heights in creativity. With the release of We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Phife & Q-Tip truly came together and proved that greatness is reachable, even when somewhat unlikely. As for Phife, his legacy has been re-written. Although there is now a large hole in hip-hop with him gone, this album serves as a fantastic way to remember his larger-than-life persona, and will be remembered as a classic, even 18 years down the line.