August 5, 2009

A Tribe Called Quest - Beats, Rhymes and Life (July 30, 1996)

A Tribe Called Quest's fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life, was the first Tribe album I ever bought. Yes, that's right: my love of one of the founding members of the Native Tongues collective started late in life. I had been exposed to Tribe's music prior to July of 1996, when this disc dropped on Jive Records, but it's not as if radio deejays ever name every single song they play or anything, and the videos of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad didn't exactly receive twenty-four hour airplay. No, I was introduced to the trio in a roundabout way: I liked their contribution to the soundtrack to The Show, "Glamour & Glitz" (which only featured Q-Tip, but was credited to the group), and once their first single from this project, "1nce Again", hit BET and MTV, I was already turned.

I bet that not many bloggers would be willing to admit that.

I wasn't familiar with all of the backstory until long after I spun this disc to death, but Beats, Rhymes and Life was Tribe's first album since 1993's Midnight Marauders, which would soon become my favorite album of theirs. During their hiatus, the three members went on to contribute to other projects, the most memorable of which all seemed to belong to Q-Tip, who kept himself busy: besides converting to Islam and taking on the name Kamaal Fareed, he produced classic tracks for fellow Queens natives Nas and Mobb Deep, and he also linked up with Detroit producer extraordinaire James Yancey, better known as Jay Dee or J. Dilla, depending on when he first entered your consciousness. Tip and Jay Dee, along with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, formed The Ummah, a production unit who would handle musical duties on the crew's next two albums, Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement.

The jazz-lite, more conformist sound of The Ummah was considered to be the downfall of Beats, Rhymes and Life: although it managed to move more than one million units, it was critically and commercially trashed, and Tribe's fans never rank it among their favorites. Its two singles were quickly forgotten, and the public reaction, combined with the typical internal strife which comes from a crew who isn't doing as well as they used to, probably led to the trio's breakup a few years later. Another potential source of the blame for this album's failure is the inclusion of Q-Tip's cousin Consequence on several tracks: more than a mere guest star, it was almost as if he was audtioning for the role of newest crew member and was given multiple opportunities to prove himself. While he may be considered a decent artist now (one who is affiliated with Kanye West), he was definitely wet behind the ears back in 1996.

So does this hold up in my eyes and ears?

Beats, Rhymes and Life hits the ground running, eschewing an introductory track entirely. The Ummah's production informs the tone of the rest of the album, and Q-Tip and Phife Dawg sound more concise than ever. Even Consequence fits in well enough that he may confuse you two into thinking that he was officially inducted as the fifth member of the crew.

Kamaal received a Hip Hop Quotable in The Source for his third verse on this solo track. Over some moody and moving instrumental work, Q-Tip turns all Abstract Poetic on us, and although his actual rhymes cannot be classified as "abstract", he still turns in a classy performance, even with (especially because of?) the shots fired at his own record label.

Uh oh, I spoke too soon regarding Consequence: he fucks up a track which, let's be honest here, wasn't very good to begin with, but I have a feeling that, had Q-Tip and Phife been left to their own devices, this may have turned out better, especially since Phife drops jokes like most people drop their car keys.

Jazzy, but not in a The Low End Theory kind of way. This isn't bad, but it is definitely not as good as what I remembered. The back and forth between the two stars was entertaining, but the inclusion of Tip's cousin on here was very questionable.

I've always liked this one-verse Q-Tip wonder, although I'm not a fan of how it ends. Kamaal takes on the persona of a man who fucks up his best friend for making time with his girl. I don't find Tip that convincing as the furiously angry guy at the end, but otherwise, it's interesting to track his thought process throughout. Any guy would probably act the same way.

All of the beats on here are a complete 180-degree turn from Midnight Marauders, which may be why a lot of folks don't like it as much. Lyrically, Tip and Phife are still as potent as ever, especially Phife, as he steals Kamaal's thunder on this track (one which takes too long to actually get moving).

Not the first Tribe song I've ever heard, but the first one which made me want to purchase their album. (At this point, I wasn't very familiar with their work, not even "Electric Relaxation". Those were dark times, my friends.) The song itself is far from great, but in my mind, this shit rocks, if only for the nostalgic feelings it evokes. Recalling "Check The Rhime" was also a brilliant move on Tribe's part, and Phife's boast about his shit being "harder than last night's erection" is both funny and medically worrisome, if you take that statement literally. The Hype Williams-directed video may have been a poor decision, although I can only remember the three members of Tribe running around a lot a la The Beatles, so what do I know?

Consequence's line about "leav[ing] your wet dreams shattered" is pretty funny, I have to admit. It makes you wish that the production matched the intensity level of each rapper involved. Oh well.

Phife will have already won you over by the time he refers to the general "you" as "a corny motherfucker", but both he and Q-Tip sound great over a relatively quiet storm of a track.

The track in which Q-Tip briefly addresses how he may or may not have inadvertently started the whole East Coast/West Coast feud. (Wikipedia also mentions that Tip directly responds to the barbs thrown at him by Westside Connection on their "Cross 'Em Out And Put A K": can someone explain how he could be responding to a song that came out several months after Beats, Rhymes and Life?) Unfortunately, this occurs only during the first verse, and the rest of this Kamaal solo track is pretty dull.

Phife Dawg's solo track proves, once again, that Q-Tip isn't the only rapper with skill within the Tribe. Some of these lines are flat-out hilarious to boot. Consequence, who only handles hook duties on here, is entirely unnecessary: this song would have benefited from having Phife rhyme for three minutes straight without the coffee break a chorus can provide.

A very good Q-Tip solo song, lasting only one verse, which is perfect for my attention span. I always considered this to be a great lead-in for the next track.

I've always loved this song. As per usual, Q-Tip takes solo control over the track (I believe Phife was forced to entertain Consequence that day in the studio), and he rocks the Ummah beat well as he seeks out "a woman with a spiritual flair", all while he watches as his curses are edited out of the album version. Which is annoying, since I hate censorship, but it's not like the album needed explicit lyrics.

I would say "meh", but Phife Dawg finally reappears on this song, stomping all over his bandmate and his bandmate's cousin with ease. It's too bad the song itself is awfully boring.

To be honest, I never really cared for this song. I liked the overall message, but the execution was poor, and the inclusion of Faith Evans on the hook turns "Stressed Out" into the most commercial endeavor A Tribe Called Quest has ever recorded. I always thought it interesting that the video version added a goofy verse from Phife Dawg, who sat out the album version in favor of yet another guest appearance from Tip's cousin, but even he cannot salvage this disappointing way to end an album.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Beats, Rhymes and Life is not as good as I remember. While the lyrics of both Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are exemplary, The Ummah's beats are mostly bland. Consequence's many guest spots are also very trying. I never noticed this shit before, probably because this was the first Tribe album I ever bought, and I may or may not have also been entranced by the cover art. Some of the songs still hold up today, but a lot of them simply do not sound like they came from the same crew who brought us "Award Tour" or "Scenario". No fucking wonder I was so enamored with Midnight Marauders: I bought that disc after hearing this one, and that was such an amazingly different listening experience that I think it broke my brain.

BUY OR BURN? I want to tell everyone to buy this one, because I still enjoyed it, but my bias is showing, so I'll be realistic and recommend only a burn. You should definitely give it a shot, though: it's not as bad as other bloggers and critics have led you to believe.

BEST TRACKS: "What Really Goes On"; "Get A Hold"; "1nce Again"; "Separate/Together"


More A Tribe Called Quest write-ups can be found here.


  1. My album to play video games to, completely sterile lyrics and beats. Imagine if Q-Tip decided to follow up with the production steez he was on THE INFAMOUS...

  2. phife is infinitely better than q-tip and always has been

  3. what??? how come u not like this album alot??? this is album is straight fire, hell i didnt gave a damn that it didnt sound jazzy but the beats and lyrics were real so u gotta cut these guys some slack, consequece made a great debut here

  4. 1. Ok now it is time go get my claim to fame. I was the one that edited the album page for the albnum and brought notice to his first addressing the east/west coast beef. Tip said sometinhg that was taken as a shot at the West by Mack 10 and his crew (Cube was busy f-ing up his ties with Cypress Hill and getting ethered by Common). So they came back on Tip on that song (and Cypress Hill). I also made mentioned of how Extra P dissed his former crew on his guest verse on "Keep It Rollin" on Main Source's wiki page, but I digress. What I am saying is that Tip was cathcing flack for his 95' freestyle and address the boiling (and eventually) tensions of the beef.

    2. I would actually disagree with you and recommend a buy. This album is pretty good upon reflection. I say this knowing it does not hold a candle to their first albums and I consider still good. Look, nothing they released after Marauders was probably going to match it, but you get it's a B for effort (See me after class). Tells you something about the greatness of this crew.

    3. You should catch the remix to stressed out with Raphael Saadiq. It knocks the original out the park and watches fly into the endzone for a slamdunk matchpoint????!!!

    4. Best Tracks: 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14

    Overall Interesting Read, to say nonetheless

  5. I heard Midnight Marauders first, so I'm definitely biased towards that album.
    None of the tracks really stick out to me like the rest of their discography. Beats are nice, though definitely different sounding from Q-Tip production.
    Cons sounds very amateurish next to Tip & Phife.

  6. I'm actually kind of embarassed that I forgot about the remix to "Stressed Out" featuring Raphael Saadiq, especially since I'm all over every other fucking song that Saadiq and Q-Tip have collaborated on. So, in short, the remix is better than the original, but I still don't like the overall song, so if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to remix it, does it make a sound?

  7. Nice heading hip hop still not dead its still the best in the business. Great post.

  8. If this album wasnt mentioned in the same context as such unassailable classics such as Midnight Marauders and Low End Theory, I honestly believe it would be better appreciated. The singles are just alright and it takes some effort to listen to it all the way through, but tracks like the Jam, Get a Hold, the Hop, What Really Goes On, and to some degree Stressed Out are what keep me bumping this album on a regular basis, along with the vintage Jay dee beats and Phife's improvement as an MC.
    I also find myself liking this album more then the Love Movement and Amplified, and the rapping on here is way better then on People's Instinctive Travel's. I hate when people say this album sucks...

  9. Wow...only a burn? Granite, it wasn't as good as Low End or Marauders, but it was still a solid album. By the way "World Play" is one of the best songs on the album. Peace.

  10. this review is weak!!!max come on, this album is worth buying, most of the tracks here are fucking great


  12. You don't want to let your bias show? How come you always let your bias show for Jay-Z then? You're a walking contradiction Max.

  13. AnonymousJuly 14, 2011

    jay dees thin ass drums fuck up tribe

  14. I just got into the album and I have to say, it's pretty enjoyable. I can understand where you're coming from but for me, it's another classic. I guess I must be one of the guys who's able to tolerate Consequence's appearances on this album.

    One of my favorite song on here? "The Pressure". It may take long to start up but I enjoy the scratching on the intro and the buildup to where Q-Tip and Phife unleash their monster verses.

    I have to agree with you "Stressed Out" is the only song from the Tribe I don't really like or care for; in fact, I'd go so far to say it's non-essential Tribe music.

    Great review as always Max. It's always nice when you admit you enjoy something even though you want to maintain integrity as a reviewer; something I can understand.