WE GOT IT FROM HERE…THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE by A Tribe Called Quest
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Space Program,” “We the People…,” “Whateva Will Be,” “Dis Generation,” “Black Spasmodic,” “Lost Somebody,” “Conrad Tokyo”
An excellent hip hop album should, first and foremost, speak the truth. In a culture of braggadocio, machismo, and commercial excess, it’s easy for emcees’ egos to blur and distort reality. The records that last, however, speak with a degree of honesty: it’s what the entire central tenet of keeping it real means, after all. Regardless of how one personally feels about A Tribe Called Quest, the seminal hip hop group from Queens, it’s difficult to deny that they haven’t kept it real over the course of their 20 plus year career. After 18-ish years in hiatus, WE GOT IT FROM HERE…THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE could easily have felt like a money-grubbing attempt at reclaiming their former glory, but upon genuine examination, Tribe clearly came into the booth with something to say. What the quartet had to say certainly changed over the course of the album, as one of the crew’s key members, Phife Dawg, passed away before the recordings could be completed.
The result is a musing, meandering, massive double-LP, ripe with political frustrations and personal grief. This record seems fated to be remembered and cherished, at least by a certain demographic, the stars that govern hip hop aligning just so in order to deliver a great work. It is not a perfect record; anyone who tells you that it surpasses LOW END THEORY or MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS is indulging in hyperbole. That being said, this is a respectable ending to a wildly influential career.
For anyone at all familiar with said career, it’s remarkable how little Tribe has changed in their time away. Instead, our current love for jazz-tinged hip hop brought about by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and even Flying Lotus have made Tribe’s sound feel fresh and vital once again. It seems that Q-Tip took his own advice and remembered that “things go in cycles,” and waited to stage a comeback until hip hop was ready to hear the sound he and Ali Shaheed Muhammad pioneered more than two decades ago. In a world of interchangeable, disposable mixtapes, where DJ Mustard and Metro Boomin’ have become so ubiquitous that any differing, fully-realized sound feels new, Tribe’s laidback yet iron-tight beats come as a breath of fresh air. For the most clear proof that Tribe still has the magic touch, listen to “We The People…,” a powerful and sardonic indictment of the current political climate. Of all the tracks on the record, this most clearly stands shoulder to shoulder with anything else in their catalogue, an instant classic.
Despite its daunting length, this is such a well structured album that it moves from one track to the other with seamlessness that makes the hour breeze by. The ability to construct addicting, complete albums that can be left spinning on repeat is what has always distinguished Tribe from their peers. Their special blend of soothing and catchy rhythms provides the perfect base to allow them to cover vast amounts of lyrical territory. “The Space Program” kicks the record off with a chilling reminder that even as the modern world of Elon Musk reaches for the stars, black people and poor people in general, will be left on earth. It’s a sobering call to pragmatism in a time that it’s desperately needed. What’s remarkable is that when Q-Tip offers his insights into abusing over-the-counter sleeping pills near the end of the first LP on “Melatonin,” it feels like hardly any time has passed. The tracks follow each other with such a clear, logical progression that the ride is incredibly easy to go along.
If 2016 is going to be looked back on and understood through the lens of popular music, it’s going to feel as if everyone was dropping like flies in the face of the terrifying new reality of a Donald Trump presidency. In a year where it feels as if almost every great record has confronted grief, death, and loss in some way, Tribe would have almost missed out on the zeitgeist to not have had to confront a personal tragedy of their own. There is a very real sense that all the old guard of pop music, be they transcendent rock stars or mega MCs, are dramatically falling away at once. In a sick, seemingly cosmic twist of irony, it is fitting that Phife Dawg would die and change the direction and meaning of this whole record. As much as Tribe clearly set out to make a political and socially conscious hip hop record, Q-Tip is instead sidetracked and forced to focus in on the death of his best friend. This makes for some of the highlights of the album, including “Black Spasmodic,” in which Phife drops an absolutely killer verse, only to be met with a posthumous verse from Tip, speaking as Phife from beyond the grave, delivering words of comfort and strength to Tip, but also to fans and listeners in general. It’s a damn shame that the duo are done making records permanently, but like every great work of music rendered from a place of profound loss in 2016, this feels like a fantastic note to end on.
This is not the album Tribe set out to make initially, and it was released into a different world than they expected it to exist in. Released a day after the election of Donald Trump, Q-Tip has said that he, like a large portion of the United States, fully expected the record to be released to Hillary Clinton’s America. The fact that it was instead unleashed onto the more openly sinister world we have all found ourselves inhabiting since November 8th gives the record an unexpected new context. You see, there’s ultimately an optimism to WE GOT IT FROM HERE that could easily be dismissed in the crushing cynicism that seems to have gripped us in the past few weeks. Most likely it will only be as more time passes before we can appreciate what the Tribe has given us, an album that looks towards the future, not with bright-eyed idealism, but with a certain clear-headed optimism. If the death of Phife Dawg couldn’t kill Tribe’s inherently goofy spirit, it’s difficult to shake the sense that they won’t be able to weather the presidency of Donald Trump in a similar manner.