Rap canon is dominated by records that are easy to talk about. If you’ve taken a basic lit crit class, you can speak more or less lucidly about how G Rap or Nas or Andre or Kendrick is a Great Artist. It’s tougher to articulate—or at least, to articulate in quote-unquote “objective” ways—why snap music worked, or why ODB was so magnetic, or why Scarface mastered the craft in a way Eminem never did.
To combat this, some people who instinctively get that Gucci Mane is a great artist, for example, mount arguments that focus solely on wordplay, or project weird authorial intents onto homonymous slang. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t do anything to expand the ways in which a broader audience thinks about rap music.
Earlier this month, the surviving members of A Tribe Called Quest dropped We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. It’s the group’s first album since 1998’s The Love Movement—and their first since Phife Dawg passed away this March.
At the risk of plagiarizing myself, Phife “rapped in the here and now, as if the Minnie Riperton was being chopped up right in front of you. Some rappers are historians, some are fatalists. Some—including Q-Tip, to be sure—float through time with no regard for its rules, skipping into the past or the future as they see fit. In that sense, he and Phife were perfect foils for one another. Two kids got a time machine, and one stayed behind to hold the fort.”
Skip to Sept. 1998. The Love Movement arrives on the same day as Aquemini, the same day as Hard Knock Life and the Black Star album. Instead of the genre-bending masterpiece, the ascendent superstar record, or the return to the essence, Tribe, in many eyes, fails to learn the lessons of 1996’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life. The water is finally above their heads.
Back to ‘96:
Yo I was riding the train
And this Puerto Rican kid said, simple and plain: ‘Let’s battle’
It kinda took me by surprise
‘Cause the brother was moving with his eyes on the prize
I said ‘Screw it, I ain’t got nothing to lose,
But I got to do this shit real quick so, umm, hurry up kid
Bust your joints and then I’ll bust mine
And I’ll be out, because I gotta see this hottie’
He said ‘Okay, yo check it, check it out
Blahblahblahblah,’ That’s what he said
Then I came back and just fucked up his head.
Q-Tip isn’t fucking around here, A. because he has to get Uptown to his girl, B. because in 1996, he is one of the greatest rappers on the face of the Earth, and C. because he is also probably getting a little insecure. Both he and Phife anchor their verses on “Phony Rappers” with the insistence that just because they’re on television doesn’t mean they’re not hard.
“Phony Rappers” ends up being a phenomenal song, but the fact that it leads off Beats, Rhymes, and Life is a clear statement of purpose for their post-prime career. When some scoffed at that—because they missed the Native Tongues sound, because they didn’t like Consequence, whatever—Tribe’s tonal about-face on The Love Movement read as a weak capitulation, even if it was a natural next step for a versatile group.
In reality, The Love Movement is a fine record; both Tip and Phife were in interesting places and were rapping, in a formal sense, as well as ever, and the Dilla-led production is solid. The record’s uneven, but the highs are formidable. By contrast, Beats, Rhymes, and Life is steelier, more metallic than the original trilogy. It doesn’t reach Midnight Marauders’ highs or plunge to The Low End Theory’s depths. What could?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that line on “We Can Get Down” when Phife says “I be three albums deep, but I don’t wanna go pop.” They could have gone pop, fully pop. Tribe could have cranked out songs for blockbuster movie soundtracks and darted around the country in gold airplanes. But every time I think of that lyric, my mind jumps forward to “Da Booty,” from The Love Movement, when Phife is sitting on Letterman’s couch, sounding bored.
Those last two records got seven-and-a-half mics between them. Tip and Phife were never pariahs; there was just something missing. At their best, Tribe were master craftsmen, creative visionaries, brilliant songwriters—but something else was happening, too. Tribe was bound by a weird alchemy, the sort of thing that you feel in your bones but feel silly trying to articulate. There’s no good reason why “Skypager” feels like dark magic. But it does.
To go a step beyond that: There’s no monoculture anymore, but A Tribe Called Quest is as close as you can come to a point of consensus within the rap world. And yet as we’ve gotten further removed from Beats, Rhymes, and Life and The Love Movement, those two albums have become, weirdly, more maligned than they were on their release. (In addition to those four mics from The Source, Beats got a very positive review in Rolling Stone, which only bristled at a stray use of the word “faggot.” Thank God Jive scrapped “Georgie Porgie.”) Where other creative breaks from popular rappers in the same period—think It Was Written, or the Buhloone Mindstate/Stakes Is High flip-flop—have become more heralded with the benefit of hindsight, Tribe’s two post-Marauders efforts have been relegated by history to the bargain bin.
All of this is to say that there are unseen forces trying to box Tribe into the early 1990s. Two pretty good records—and you could argue Beats is more than that—were deemed unacceptable. Tribe was hailed, even in the mid-’90s, as being not only great, but revolutionary; when the revolution took a left turn or allowed for a few Consequence verses, it was a bridge too far.
A reunion album has been teased over and over again for years, parceled out in neat headlines and cryptic magazine quotes. But if one of rap’s greatest groups—maybe the greatest—couldn’t last the first Clinton administration, how would it fare in the second?
I find it hard to blame Jimmy Fallon for ruffling Trump’s hair. I think that’s all he knows how to do. Did you remember Tribe rapping on Fallon the night of the Paris attacks? They’re one of the only acts in the world equipped to bring clarity in times of hopelessness, but there was only enough notice to have “Can I Kick It?” in tow. The performance was great, but planted—confirmed?—the worry that we’d only have Tribe through commemorative reissues. (Phife wore a Mets jacket. It’s the last time I remember seeing him.)
We Got It From Here is a towering achievement—and it would be a towering achievement even if you stripped it from its context, from Trump’s America. It’s a beautifully made rap album, full of vibrant vocals; the production is a smart synthesis of different threads Tribe perfected or inspired in the last three decades. Their skills haven’t atrophied at all; if this were made by a group of reckless 20-year-olds, we’d be hailing the second coming. Beyond their formal virtuosity, We Got It From Here taps back into that inarticulable witchcraft.
My favorite moment might be on “Dis Generation,” when Tip drops a nod to chemtrails, but does it casually, like they don’t bother him.
As for him being unbothered: His first verse on “We the People” is an absolute clinic. He’s slurring, then staccato; he’s sneering, then earnest, then looping back again. People keep talking about how timely this album, and in particular this song is. It’s true, of course—to a degree that can’t be overstated. But “We the People” wasn’t written and recorded in the 60 hours between the election being called and We Got It From Here popping up online. America has never been for the people listed in the chorus.
When Phife raps that he has “John Wall” status, he’s underselling himself.