In March, self-confessed funky diabetic rapper Phife Dawg passed away, as a result of complications with diabetes. He was one third of jazz rap pioneers A Tribe Called Quest, who were in the latter stages of recording their first new album in nearly two decades. The loss was likely made all the harder to bear by the fact that A Tribe Called Quest only recently repaired their bond, after years of tension and disconnect, and it should have come as no surprise should they have decided to axe the project.
That’s not what they did. The group proceeded with the album’s production, and their de facto leader, Q-Tip, expressed his wish that it should celebrate Phife’s legacy. On that front, at the very least, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service overwhelmingly succeeds. It avoids the kind of lachrymose doting one might expect, and retains nothing but consistently tasteful sentiments. There are plenty of nods to Phife interspersed amongst the full-length tribute tracks (Lost Somebody, The Donald), but We Got It From Here never outstays its welcome on this terrain. Instead, all efforts have been focussed on ensuring the record is exactly what it was intended to be – a great comeback album.
A Tribe Called Quest released their first album back when they were barely 20 years old, but they’ve always had a precocious maturity about them. The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders in particular saw Q-Tip and Phife Dawg traverse sociological sketches, lamentations of the music industry, wistful evocations of childhood nostalgia and tales of love and sex. We Got It From Here, however, marks the group’s first real foray into the political sphere. Though the record begins with some arguably facile assertions (It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever), the album soon reveals a higher level of insight. We The People and The Killing Season explore different manifestations and impacts of racial oppression, the latter doing so with the assistance of Talib Kweli, Kanye West, and Consequence, who collectively make the track all the more hard-hitting. Jack White augments Q-Tip’s explication of human pride and folly on Ego with simple but effective guitar lines, and Elton John’s surprise appearance towards the end of Solid Wall of Sound provides the perfect coda to Phife Dawg’s Trinidadian lilt.
In fact, the album’s featured artists proffer nothing less than first-class performances. André 3000 gives Q-Tip a hand exploring the minutiae of childhood experiences in Kids, whilst Anderson .Paak decorates Movin Backwards with his soulful ornamentations and thought-provoking musings. Kendrick Lamar succeeds Phife Dawg in more ways than one on Conrad Tokyo – only Phife is coming at us from beyond the grave, but both rappers sound like spectres here. Busta Rhymes and Consequence, two of Tribe’s most prolific collaborators, adorn every spare bar with their endearing bravado, perhaps in an effort to fill the musical, if not the spiritual, void left by Phife.
Even so, the original members of A Tribe Called Quest still command most of the listener’s attention. Q-Tip’s flow has a greater complexity to it, and his lyrics seem more profound. Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s beats are more eclectic and spacious, and the whole thing is impeccably produced. Even Jarobi’s first proper debut is impressive for a rapper who, for all Tribe’s fans knew, could have possessed very little talent. Phife Dawg stands at the centre like some magnificent statue – virtually unchanged in decades, yet still evoking a feeling of awe. The bittersweetness is most palpable during Lost Somebody, wherein Q-Tip and Jarobi balance the cerebral with the celebratory, poignantly heralding the life of Phife Dawg. Fittingly, the song cuts out before it’s allowed to come to a natural end.
“Heart of a largest lion trapped inside the little dude.” (Lost Somebody)
I’m in no position to call this the greatest hip-hop album of the year, and neither is anyone else. With that being said, I certainly haven’t heard a better one. A Tribe Called Quest have returned with an encore few people may have thought possible, and they’ve exceeded all limitations in the process. It looks as though this is the end of the road for them, but they’ve taken a glorious final bow - one characterised by the greatest lyrical and musical breadth and development of their entire career. At a time when rap is drenched in mumbled vocals, excessive auto-tune and mindless beat fetishism, A Tribe Called Quest have given us one last glimpse of the golden age of hip-hop.