June 14, 2008

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (September 24, 1991)

A Tribe Called Quest (which was down to Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad after tragically losing Jarobi in a poorly thought out plan involving a poker game and a mango) saw a bit of success with their debut album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and parlayed that initial reaction into some well-received shows and cameos. They, of course, decided, to do the logical thing with their career: they completely changed up their formula. As a result, their sophomore effort The Low End Theory is sometimes seen as their darkest album.

One senses that Q-Tip and Phife weren't entirely pleased with their record label, Jive, or the extra attention that was naturally acquired through success, and they address these and other social ills throughout the disc. "Check The Rhime", the first single, briefly portrays Tip as a young rapper who is mistrustful of his record label's shady dealings (which probably wasn't too far off the mark from reality); "What?" features a stubborn Kamaal questioning everything about the world around him; and the most literal song of the bunch, "Show Business", is an outright attack on the business of show in general (Phife throws out the term "motherfuckers" so vehemently that I had to double check if there was a Parental Advisory sticker on The Low End Theory: for the record, there isn't).

Tribe's dark side is accompanied by some of the smoothest jazz-tinged instrumentals in hip hop history, and this is coming from the guy that previously reviewed the first two Gangstarr albums. As a result, the compositions resonate in a different, yet deeper, way that the first album did, making for a far richer listening experience.

Oh, and The Low End Theory contains "Scenario", Tribe's collaboration with the Leaders Of The New School, a track which is generally considered to be one of the greatest posse cuts of all time. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

The Low End Theory is considered by many to be Tribe's finest record in their catalog. It frequently finds itself on lists containing the greatest hip hop records ever made, which is a bit disturbing, considering that it is an inanimate object and shouldn't be able to 'find' anything. A Tribe Called Quest never sold bazillions of records, but if you were at a friend's house and saw that they had a copy of The Low End Theory in their collection, your perception of that friend would immediately change for the better: you would immediately donate a kidney, an extra lung, or your third ball if this friend was dying, without any hesitation whatsoever, just because they had listened to The Low End Theory at least once.

Strong words, right?

What rap album intro? Tribe jumps right back into the rap game with an immediacy that I would appreciate seeing on everybody's albums, goddammit. Of course, the song has to sound good for this trick to work: luckily, we are dealing with A Tribe Called Quest here.

I always like it when Phife outshines his rhyme partner on a song, since it happens so infrequently, although Phife's appearances have multiplied rapidly since his handful of seemingly-guest-appearances on the debut disc. I love this track, especially Phife's second verse, on which he exclaims "Hip hop is livin' / You can't yank the plug". Which, of course, would be the point of my entire blog in the first place, and, as an added bonus, could also double as my argument as to why I'm not going to waste my precious time with the new Lil Wayne claptrap.

I love how Tip calls this "a fly love song" during the song's intro, but the track itself features the Abstract calling out show promoters for shady dealings. Yeah, that makes sense. The beat is simple, sweet, and direct.

A solo showcase for Phife (Q-Tip only pops up on a hook midway through) is almost derailed when he resorts to rhyming girls's names together, a technique which always sounds like filler material. He quickly redeems himself in his second verse, when he responds to groupies who scream "We love you, Phife!" with a simple "My name's Malik". Good stuff, and the beat is pretty smooth, almost like some sort of food substance that can be a decent substitute for margarine.

Honestly, this song sounds pretty boring today, contributions from jazz bassist Ron Carter notwithstanding.

This diatribe against the public eye and the music industry pleasantly surprised me, not just because it rocks, but because the special guest stars all mesh so well with Q-Tip and Phife that you would expect them to be lost members of the Tribe. Also, Diamond D's sly rock thrown at the Wild Pitch name is interesting.

The title sounds like they ran out of ideas, but this is just a good song. That's all I got. Nothing more to say.

Years before rappers openly admitted in their songs that they videotape every sexual encounter with a groupie in order to dispel any rumors of rape that may turn up later, Q-Tip and Phife explored the mindset of a guy who really wants to sleep with some chick but doesn't want to risk his freedom. I was about to criticize Q-Tip for insinuating that women would only turn down sex if they happen to be on their periods, but then I realized that he's just vocalizing what some guys actually think when they're denied some loving, so, well played, Kamaal.

Don't get me wrong. I like this song, which was the first single, and it still sounds pretty decent today. However, when compared to the rest of Tribe's catalog, it's not the most appealing song ever. Phife's verse is pretty ill, though.

The vocal sample is jarring, but the song itself gets to be pretty good when the beat kicks in. But that vocal sample...man...I don't know...

Will appeal to folks that love hard hitting drums in their rap songs. Also, to people that love good fucking songs. Apparently superproducer Pete Rock has claimed that he originally created the best for this song, and Tip recreated it without his consent and took all the credit for himself. I don't know how true that is, but listening to the instrumental, I suppose there may be a little bit of Pete Rock influence (at least) in there.
Sounds incredibly dated, if only because the only guy that still uses a pager these days is Dean Winters's character on 30 Rock. The drums hit you hard, though.

13. WHAT?
Two of Q-Tip's questions stand out for me: "What are laws if they're not fair and equal?" and "What is hip hop if it doesn't have violence?". To answer the second query, I guess it would be a lot like A Tribe Called Quest themselves. This is just a nice, simplistic song that in no way will prepare you for the absolute monster that is...

This song earns its title as one of the best posse cuts of all time, because it fucking rocks. It also made a bonafide star out of Busta Rhymes, who roars like a dungeon dragon in his final verse, inadvertently propelling himself on a career path that would lead to the breakup of Leaders Of The New School and a solo career that has seen many ups and downs. This song is just great: I don't think I need to say anything else.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Low End Theory completely shifts gears, shaking the hippie sound from their debut for more hardcore (to a point) hip hop, with a tint of abstract jazz to back it up. Phife Dawg comes through in a big way, and Q-Tip has also stepped it up lyrics-wise, although for the Abstract, that was never really much of an issue. The real star of the album, though, and its most unheralded, is Ali Shaheed Muhammad, whose musical backdrops are both urgent and nostalgic, and without those beats, this album would just be spoken word poetry.

BUY OR BURN? Oh, by all means, you need to buy this album. It took me a while to get into it back in the day (if you'll recall, I started my Tribe fascination by purchasing Beats, Rhymes, & Life first, and worked my way backwards, so you can imagine my shock at The Low End Theory's sound after hearing the more straightforward Midnight Mauraders), but once I heard it all the way through, I was hooked. It's a masterpiece, plain and simple, and to all of you readers that feel compelled to leave a comment saying that this album is garbage, I'm telling you this right now: You're fucking wrong.

B-SIDE TO TRACK DOWN: "Scenario (Remix)", featuring Leaders Of The New School and Kid Hood, is also a worthy addition to the Tribe catalog. Sadly, Kid Hood died shortly after recording his verse on this track, but while his verse sounds much more violent and, well, let's face it, ignorant than the usual Tribe antics, his flow meshes well with everyone else, and the beat is also switched up into a contemporary classic.

BONUS VIDEO: For no reason, here's a short film by the late Jim Henson (of The Muppets fame) that reminded me of The Low End Theory while I was writing this. It's called Time Piece and is well worth checking out.




  1. welcome back homes...thought we'd lost you after that mos def debacle...everyting you sed is on point..except the part bout "words from the abstract" being "boring"

  2. this is indeed a fantastic album , period !

  3. You Knew I am going totally agree with this review, right?!! There is no bad song on the album , although as you have stated, some of the songs sound dated. But it don't matter this, its all good. I am actually putting together some piece on this album so stay tuned, stay tuned, stay tuned....

  4. The greatest Tribe album and my #3 hip-hop album of all time. Still a ridiculous classic. I'm sure you've read this already but if not:


  5. tight record indeed

    scenario is a crazy song and Busta's verse is ill

    btw i really enjoy your blog

  6. Oh yeah, read that book "Check The Technique". I was surprised when I read it last summer and found out that Q-Tip produced the album not Ali Shaheed.


  7. This is the best ATCQ album by far. The beats and basslines are on point and heavy hitting... The only thing that bothers a little bit is the fact that some beats sound similar, almost like Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain" album does.

    Anyway, "The Low End Theory" is a classic album!


  8. I got into an argument at a bar recently after I played Excursions on the jukebox with someone trying to tell me that Beats, Rhymes & Life was Tribe's best album.

    That person was so wrong, but they couldn't help it, they were like 7 year old when this album came out.

    One of the top three albums of all time.

  9. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessJune 17, 2008

    I was 14 when this dropped. It was the most played album in my collection until Illmatic passed it in late 1995. The Low End Theory is easily a top ten album of all time. Unfortunately I don't really have any snarky comments to make about it. The best I can come up with is that I'll never again think of Siemens Furniture in the same light.

  10. huh, I really have to revisit this album... I listened to it way back when I was just getting into hip-hop, and I was a bit underwhelmed by the understated production, then listened to midnight marauders, and haven't looked back. thanks for writing this review.

  11. trainwithnodoughJune 29, 2008

    You hate way too much on Illmatic. You give this album so much love, yet are so unenthusiastic about Illmatic. How can I respect your taste in Hip Hop? You claim to be dropping wisdom about old school hip hop, but if you give illmatic such a bland rating, your doing nothing but confusing any person new to the genre. Illmatic should have recieved a much better and more energetic write up than this album. This album is great, but Illmatic is untouchable.

  12. Um, I just double-checked the Illmatic review, and I wrote that it was "a fucking brilliant album" that people should definitely purchase (as expressed through my clever use of all caps). I'm not sure how that qualifies as "unenthusiastic". A Tribe Called Quest and Nas also can't really be compared with each other, as they appeal to different aspects of hip hop and, therefore, to different listener needs. Not every Nas fan feels Quest, and vice versa, so it doesn't make much sense for someone to say that Illmatic is better than The Low End Theory, because then you would be misleading possible new entries into the genre into thinking that these two albums should be stacked up against one another to begin with.

    But if you insist, I will reiterate: The Low End Theory is a fucking brilliant album. Illmatic is a fucking brilliant album. If you can spare the cash after your most recent trip to the gas station, you should buy BOTH. But you shouldn't expect them to be at all alike: they're both great for different reasons.

    Thanks for reading!

  13. AnonymousJuly 28, 2008

    A good read thnx. Personally I rate Midnght Marauders as the Tribes best album but this is a close second.

  14. The bit where the track changes up about mid way through vibes'n'stuff is one of my favourite moments in music.

    Scenario is a fantastic song in spite of each of the L.O.N.S. guys dropping APALLING lyrics. I know it's hip hop and all and there's an inanity quotient to fill, but still...

    Protons Electrons Always Cause Explosions.

    1. I totally agree with you on the VibesNStuff part. It's fucking sublime. The joke is that I am listening to that track just as I stumble onto your comment.

      and yes, a Liquid Swords quote. One of my favorite albums ever.

  15. Why is 3/4 of the review written in very little characters ? I can't read it and it annoys me.

  16. Blogger started fucking things up when I switched from one format to another recently. I'm slowly going through all of the posts to make them more consistent. You should be able to read it more easily now.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. AnonymousJuly 08, 2012

    I think Midnight Marauders is better, but if you said this was the best Tribe album, i wouldn't argue with ya.

  18. No 'Best Tracks'? Ahhh no need all the tracks are good!

    1. Huh. Never noticed that before. Well, consider the "best tracks" to be the entire goddamn album.

  19. My theory is: If you listen to hip hop a lot you'll like Midnight Marauders more, and if you don't you'll like The Low End Theory more, because this album has a more accessible sound. Whether or whether not it get's the #1 spot of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, for my money, it HAS to get the #1 greatest hip hop album cover. That puts www.thug.com by Trick Daddy, Big Bear, and the rest of that Pen & Pixel shit to shame.

    1. I disagree, I pretty much only listen to hip hop (with occasional excursions into John Coltrane jazz) and yet The Low End Theory is my 2nd favourite album ever. And no, Midnight Marauders isn't my number 1 (that honour goes to Liquid Swords). I think this album is Tribe's finest by a long shot. I agree about the album cover though