A Tribe Called Quest returns for a curtain call that's as vital to 2016 as any other hip hop album.
In November 2013, Q-Tip announced that A Tribe Called Quest's "FINAL 2 joints" would be a pair of opening slots on Kanye West's "Yeezus" tour in New York. Then this past March, Phife Dawg passed away at 45. Tribe seemed one commemorative box set away from a done deal, but here we are in the waning months of 2016 with the privilege of listening to and talking about a new album of theirs. What a time. The Phife-named We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service is the group's first since 1998's oft-forgotten The Love Movement, and is billed as their farewell album. It couldn't have arrived at a time when the world needed it more.
Tribe arose out of the same Native Tongues collective that birthed De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers, but in contrast with songs from those groups like "Say No Go" or "What's Going On?", their early material wasn't overly concerned with social or political issues. They still fit into the movement because they were intelligent, vibrant, and above all, musically innovative, but it wasn't really until 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life that Tribe stepped away from their happy-go-lucky streak and started tackling capital-I issues. On the album's powerful second half, they thoughtfully addressed the ongoing East-West beef on "Keep It Movin," black unity on "Separate/Together," and countless everyday struggles on "Stressed Out," maturing their content and mindsets without losing any of their lyrical playfulness along the way. That album is great, but there's a reason it's not looked back upon as fondly as The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders: it's simply not as fun or loose. Hopefully We Got It From Here..., with its similarly weighty themes, will spur a reevaluation of Beats, Rhymes and Life, because although this may be a better album, the seed was first planted for this vital comeback in '96.
Right from the start, it's clear this thing is political. "The Space Program" flips afrofuturism on its head, imagining a scenario in which the rich abandon a blighted Earth and live in extraterrestrial realms while the underprivileged are left to rot on a dying planet. That's pretty conceptual for a group whose most ambitious songwriting plots to date involve leaving a wallet in El Segundo and beginning each line in a song with the word "what," but it's also not as if they're attempting a Deltron 3030-style sci-fi epic-- Tip is conversational as ever while delivering some of the most engaging political bars of his career. Tribe clearly thought it necessary to address current events, but as Tip said in a recent interview, they "made a choice not to be heavy-handed, to still keep it in our own tongue."
It's clear that Tribe didn't go into this aiming for a victory lap or a nostalgia trip. We Got It From Here... closes out their legacy with their most powerful statements, but it still feels like the instantly likable Tribe of old. Tip, Phife, Jarobi White, Busta Rhymes, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are all more nuanced and less optimistic than their old selves, but the youthful joy that fueled cuts like "Scenario" and "Award Tour" still fills the gaps in between their more important points.
Almost every track has a message that you could boil down into a thesis statement, which is a rarity in any genre of music. Whether it's gentrification ("We The People..."), the modern state of hip hop ("Dis Generation"), self-medication ("Melatonin"), or the military-industrial complex ("The Killing Season"), most topics covered are evergreen, issues that mattered just as much ten years ago as they do now, but the album's timing really can't be ignored. We Got It From Here... dropped just about 48 hours after Donald Trump won the presidency, and while it would still been an impactful statement album had it dropped in a vacuum, it fell upon ears waiting to hear something as powerful, angry, and righteous. Closing track "The Donald" notwithstanding, Tribe clearly had him in mind when crafting this, even though they couldn't have written any of it in direct response to his victory. It's inevitable that any political piece of art released in the next few months will be thinkpieced into conversation with Trump and his supporters. But unlike, say, recent sci-fi film "Arrival," which has been flipped into a statement about understanding and cross-cultural compassion by just about everyone who's reviewed it, WGIFH actually reckons with the world he's created in his wake.
"All you Black folks, you must go
All you Mexicans, you must go
And all you poor folks, you must go
Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways
So all you bad folks, you must go"
That's Tip on the "We The People..." hook, relaying the translation of "Make America Great Again" that the vast majority of non-white people have received loud and clear for the past year. It's portrayed in the microcosm of one of America's many gentrifying neighborhoods, but there's no mistaking that line in the sand and who's drawn it most prominently in recent memory. (Major props to Tip, by the way, for seeing the error of his ways and ditching the "Call me homophobic but I know it and you know it/You're filthy and funny to the utmost exponent" rhetoric for a more inclusive mindset.) The song also contains a sentiment that's been echoed by many wondering how to stay sharp and combat Trump every step of the way in the wake of his victory: "Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality."
Tribe rage against the toxic complacency that's swept the nation, urging action over sedation on both "We The People..." and anti-sleeping aide sermon "Melatonin." "So many thoughts in my mind, making it very hard to unwind," sings Abbey Smith, no doubt saying what many of us have been thinking in the past week, "guess I should take one, just one." It's so easy to escape reality via mindless media and mind-altering substances, and Tribe argues that this, "Brave New World"-type remedy is not the antidote. Neither is panic, though, as the more calming "Whateva Will Be" suggests. "Everybody runnin' when they see the storm's comin'/But whatever's gonna be will be," Tip says, ever so Que Sera Sera to the bullshit. Stay alert but don't panic; let your mind process this and formulate plans for action, but don't let it run amok-- that's more sensible advice than the bulk of reactionary Op-Eds and Facebook essays I've read all week.
All of the parts of WGIFH able to be read as anti-Trump will no doubt get the bulk of our attention for the foreseeable future, but it's important to note that the rest, while not as provocative, marks equal maturation and topical clarity for the group. "Kids..." acts as a great part two to André 3000's "Solo (Reprise)" verse on Frank Ocean's Blonde, once again finding him poetically eulogizing his childhood with bars as vivid as "Yeah, it look a little different on a yacht/But ain't gon' lie, I miss kayaking." "Enough!!" deals with the balance of work and love; "Movin' Backwards" is a self-aware exploration of self, maturity, and time; "Ego" weighs the pros and cons of self-confidence; "Lost Somebody" heartbreakingly mourns the loss of Phife. The less political half of the album plays like a guide to navigating one's forties and fifties, and while it's eye-opening and thought-provoking to me now, I'm definitely ear-marking it for when I myself reach that age.
Tip, who handles the lion's share of the album, gives us a window into his fears, all-consuming thoughts, and memories more vividly than any rapper his age ever has. Ali assists with his widest-ranging collection of beats yet. Busta, Jarobi, and Consequence sound better than they have in years. By crafting their most purposeful, important album yet, the whole crew redefines "going out in style." A Tribe Called Quest already had one of the greatest legacies in rap history, and to call this a cherry on top is the understatement of the year.