February 15, 2018

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (November 11, 2016)





On November 13, 2015, A Tribe Called Quest performed on television for the first time in many years. Although the crew had gotten together for a handful of stage shows to help support Kanye West's Yeezus tour a couple of years prior, their appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon wasn't considered to be anything resembling a reunion, as producer-slash-rapper Q-Tip was busy with his solo career, as was rapper Phife Dawg, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and rapper-slash-chef Jarobi White.

Tribe’s performance aired the same evening as the attacks in Paris, France, where three suicide bombings killed one hundred and thirty people and injured over four hundred more. Taking this as a sign that the future isn’t promised for anyone, A Tribe Called Quest quietly reunited for real, and even decided to record an album in secret.

Unfortunately, Phife Dawg passed away from complications due to diabetes four months later.


This final project ended up being We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, a title which signals its status as a farewell album of sorts: Q-Tip has claimed that this is now the final Tribe album, as he doesn’t wish for the group to continue without Phife. That title apparently came from Phife himself, and the rest of Tribe left it on the album as a tribute: I’m not lying when I say that a tear came to my eye the first time I read it. It’s just a beautiful sentiment, and it sums up Phife’s importance to A Tribe Called Quest’s success perfectly.

We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was recorded at Q-Tip’s home studio in New Jersey. Every artist that performs on it was asked to record with the group, as opposed to sending verses through e-mail, and that guest list is eclectic: aside from usual suspects Consequence and Busta Rhymes, both veterans of past Tribe projects, Q-Tip invited Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, and Anderson .Paak, among others, to contribute. Phife managed to record several new verses for the project before his untimely passing, and Q-Tip and Jarobi completed it without him, Jarobi finally making his rhyme debut on a Tribe album after being an on-again, off-again part of the crew since its inception. Interestingly enough, the entire album was produced by Q-Tip and Blair Wells: Ali Shaheed Muhammad actually has nothing to do with the creation of the project, due to scheduling conflicts, which is why he received absolutely no credit anywhere in the liner notes, but of course remains a permanent member of the crew.

When We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service dropped in November 2016, one year after the idea had sparked in Phife’s head, I remember playing it from start to finish while driving around. Tribe is my second favorite rap group of all time (well, they may have taken the top slot, given my tendency these days to avoid most things Wu related), so to finally have another full-length project from them even eighteen years removed from their last effort, The Love Movement, especially knowing the struggles Tip and Phife had with one another and after the group had officially broken up, was fucking amazing to me, and the music took me back to a simpler time, when I had first discovered Tribe and found their sound to be the greatest and most refreshing thing I’d ever heard.

Of course I can’t say something deeply personal like that without cutting it with some cynical bullshit, so I’ll just say this: at the time Tribe broke up, they still owed one more album to Jive Records. In 2011, Jive was restructured, with several of its artists shifted over to parent company Epic. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was released in November 2016 by Epic Records.

Mission complete.

SIDE A

1. THE SPACE PROGRAM
Although not my favorite song on here, it’s amazing how quickly “The Space Program” takes the listener firmly back into Tribe territory, which, beyond some introductory cacophony, is smooth as hell. Phife Dawg doesn’t get a verse of his own, but he repeats the hook for so long that it may as well count, while Q-Tip and Jarobi handle the bars, which immediately set the not-unintentional-but-also-not-the-big-picture underlying political bent of the project, tackling the difficulty of growing up in the United States, where the racial divide is blatant. Jarobi acquits himself nicely, but we all wanted to hear Tip and Phife do a back-and-forth, and that doesn’t really happen on “The Space Program”. The production on here is light years beyond whatever The Ummah was aiming for with the last two Tribe albums, though. A nice enough start.

2. WE THE PEOPLE….
Shortly after We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’s release, Tribe dropped the video for the absolutely-no-question-politically-charged first single “We The People….”, its pounding drums crashing on your brain’s couch for the next three weeks, without offering to pay any kind of rent. Q-Tip’s bars, “N---s in the hood living in a fishbowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shithole,“ is, unfortunately for the planet, even more relevant now than it was in 2016, thanks to that racist trash bag with hair that sits in the White House. Tip’s hook is a little to on-the-nose, but I can let it slide, as he and Phife deliver powerful verses that pull no punches, “com[ing] back years later, still hit the shot.” “We The People….” Will make you miss both Phife and Tribe simultaneously, so it’s a good thing this track bangs.

3. WHATEVA WILL BE (FEAT. CONSEQUENCE)
Much quieter than the previous song, but no less effective, as Phife, Jarobi, Q-Tip, and guest star Consequence (who was once an unofficial member of the group, if you’ll recall) all discuss how unavoidable societal ills can be, and how you have to roll with the punches. It's closer to the sound the crew cultivated for The Love Movement in a way, and it’s perfectly pleasant, but nobody will ever name “Whateva Will Be” as their favorite track on the album. Moving on…

4. SOLID WALL OF SOUND  (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES, JACK WHITE, & ELTON JOHN)
When the tracklisting for We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was unleashed to the Interweb, “Solid Wall of Sound” drew the most criticism solely because of the feature credit given to Elton fucking John. (It’s akin to hip hop “purists” freaking out when they discovered U2 were listed as guests on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.) Well, here’s the deal: for the most part, Elton’s vocals are resigned to a sample taken from “Bennie & The Jets” that gives the song its title (with Jack White popping in to repeat it). The man himself appears at the end of the track to croon along with Q-Tip, so his credit is accurate. The two verses are Phife and Tip passing the mic around, with Busta Rhymes jumping in to the mix during the second stanza. For me, I enjoyed all of the ingredients, but this cake ended up tasting just like a boring song, so.

5. DIS GENERATION (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
The background music eventually turns into something smoother, but for the most part I didn’t care for the beat on “Dis Generation”, A Tribe Called Quest’s ode to what they consider to be the future of hip hop (similar to when Q-Tip proclaimed Slum Village to be the second coming of Tribe when they had first retired). Only Tip bothers to name names, though: he seems to be a fan of Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar, which is quite the co-sign. (As is the collaboration with Kendrick that Tip recently dropped on his own radio show.) It’s a strange artistic choice to shout out the next generation on a song where Tip, Phife, and Jarobi (and, later, Busta Rhymes again) pass the mic around, sharing their verses in a playful manner, something the new guys just flat-out don’t do. I dug the performances, but the actual music was lacking for me. Sigh…

6. KIDS… (FEAT. ANDRE 3000)
Informs the children in the audience whose parents love A Tribe Called Quest that (a) parents don’t have all the answers, as they were kids once, too, and (b) why are you in such a hurry to grow up? Life isn’t all spicy Popeye’s chicken and Red Lobster cheddar biscuits: adulting fucking sucks a lot of the time. A strange message to include on a rap album, but Tribe has been known to look at different topics through their own lens. Guest star Andre 3000, who opens the track and does a hell of a lot more on “Kids…” than he did on Kanye West’s “30 Hours” yesterday, lends some choice (if more playful than usual) bars and a kind-of-annoying hook, while Q-Tip’s contribution does its best to match the guest in energy and spirit. It both doesn’t fit on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, and yet We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the only project it could ever appear on, if that makes any sense.

7. MELATONIN (FEAT. MARSHA AMBROSIUS & ABBEY SMITH)
A Q-Tip solo shot, albeit one featuring vocals from both Abbey Smith and the ubiquitous Marsha Ambrosius. “Melatonin” sounds like a leftover from The Renaissance, its bluesy guitar licks cradling your neck as your head bobs up and down. The subject matter is pretty straightforward: burdened by his mind racing and anxiety, Q-Tip pops melatonin pills “like Swedish Fish” to help him sleep, which is funny imagery, but swap out “Melatonin” for Xanax and you’ll see just how disturbing and dark this could be. Still, I kind of liked this one, and it took seven tracks for Q-Tip to go it alone, so good on him?

8. ENOUGH!!
Tribe wasn’t always about conscious rap: sometimes they just wanted to hook up (see: my favorite Tribe song and contender for my fave of all time, “Electric Relaxation”). “Enough!!”, with its “Bonita Appelbaum” samples laid in throughout (a nice touch) and its title suggesting a political urgency that never arrives, is more like a chill sequel to The Love Movement’s “Find A Way”, with Tip swapping out Phife for Jarobi as they both pitch woo. The music is relaxed as all hell, if a bit cheesy, so “Enough!!” is good to listen to while in the car or at home with your significant other, but not while on the subway, as that’s just inappropriate.

SIDE B

9. MOBIUS (FEAT. CONSEQUENCE & BUSTA RHYMES)
Side B kicks off with more energy, Consequence quoting some choice Prodigy lyrics in a more conversational tone than Cellblock P could ever manage, and Busta Rhymes kind of losing his shit during a verse that ranks among the most relevant he’s been in the current decade. The loose nature of We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service allows for an artistic community vibe where people come and go from the booth as they please, but “Mobius” is still a song by A Tribe Called Quest that features none of the actual members of A Tribe Called Quest. And no, Consequence doesn’t count anymore. Still, I thought this was enjoyable and catchy, especially the music Q-Tip lays underneath his cousin Cons’ portion.

10. BLACK SPASMODIC (FEAT. CONSEQUENCE)
Consequence sticks around for the chorus of “Black Spasmodic”, whose instrumental sounds like an early demo for Blondie’s “The Tide is High”, but still works in context. Phife Dawg has the first verse, spitting his boasts and bullshittery all over the place as only he could. Q-Tip takes the second half of the track, on which he pays homage to his late friend and rhyme partner by performing as Phife, as is he were possessed by his spirit or something. It reads cheesy as hell, but “Black Spasmodic” is one of the best tracks on We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, and Tip’s emotional arc sounds genuine. Don’t skip this track.

11. THE KILLING SEASON (FEAT, TALIB KWELI, KANYE WEST, & CONSEQUENCE)
Oh, don’t get so excited about the guest list: Talib Kweli’s opening verse is dull as shit, and Tribe disciple (and current Q-Tip employer) Kanye West only performs a lazy hook. The song uses the military as an extended metaphor for racial injustice in the United States, but while that in itself is a good idea, maybe they could have convinced someone else to participate. Hell, Yasiin Bey is still kicking around somewhere. Hell, anyone from the Child Rebel Soldiers collective would have done a better job (and I’m including Yeezy in that classification, had he been offered the opportunity to spit a verse). The only Tribe member to make a vocal contribution is Jarobi, and his flow reminded me of Chubb Rock at times, which isn’t a complaint, but is a strange way to describe his performance. Sighs all around.

12. LOST SOMEBODY (FEAT. KATIA CADET)
Q-Tip and Jarobi’s ode to Phife Dawg, which you all knew was coming. “Lost Somebody” is a song that had to be recorded, and it’s nice to hear the innermost thoughts of Jarobi and Tip, especially after Michael Rappaport’s 2011 documentary on the group, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, where it seemed like Q-Top found Phife to be, to put it mildly, a nuisance, a thorn in his side. It’s a pleasant track, but not something one would need to listen to every day on a loop.

13. MOVIN BACKWARDS (FEAT. ANDERSON .PAAK)
I didn’t care for this one. Jarobi and Q-Tip sounded okay, but I still haven’t acquired the taste for Anderson .Paak (who dominates the song, at least in terms of screen time). “Movin Backwards” is less than the sum of its parts. Whatever, it’s time to skip ahead to “Conrad Tokyo” anyway.

14. CONRAD TOKYO (FEAT. KENDRICK LAMAR)
A duet between Phife Dawg and Kendrick Lamar with a song title that doubles as my future deejay name (taken from a chain hotel in, you guessed it, Tokyo), with musical backing that sounds like A Tribe Called Quest properly upgraded for 2016? Count me in. “Conrad Tokyo” is one of the finest tracks on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, with Phife’s bars getting bitterly political at times, while K-Dot just sounds honored to have been invited in the first place, getting his verse out of the way quickly so that he can just vibe to the beat. This shit was nice.

15. EGO
Jack White’s guitar work has been teased throughout the project, but it all (finally) comes to a head on “Ego”, a Q-Tip solo shot with an instrumental that approaches the jazzy sound of The Low End Theory, which helps some of Tip’s goofier bars to glide by, such as when he brags about his dick size or how he turned a spelling mistake into a hit single (see: “Vivrant Thing”). It’s slight in the overall Tribe catalog, but I still kind of liked it, and this is the most playful The Abstract has sounded in a long while.

16. THE DONALD (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES & KATIA CADET)
That title was bound to attract attention, given the project’s release date and the minor swipes made toward the white supremacist motherfucker in the White House throughout the album, but “The Donald”, the final tune of our evening, is actually named after Don Juice, a Phife Dawg nickname that didn’t get a chance to gain much traction. “The Donald” is another tribute to the late rapper, as Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip pay their respects while the man himself handles the second verse. Ends the album on a positive note, although, like “Lost Somebody”, I don’t feel the need to listen to this one again anytime soon.

FINAL THOUGHTS: As much as I want to call We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service a perfect album, that just isn’t the case. It’s consistent and cohesive, thanks to production flourishes and connecting threads that give it the feel of a body of work versus a collection of singles. But not every song is a keeper for me: some of the tracks come across as Q-Tip recording The Renaissance 2 before realizing that he was supposed to be a team player on this one. Tip’s verses are mostly killer, though: he’s one of the most underrated rappers in the game for a reason. Jarobi is a revelation, mostly because he sounds so natural flowing with his brethren even though none of us have ever heard that chemistry before. (He had recorded some bars for The Low End Theory, but they ended up on the cutting room floor after he left the group the first time around.) But the star of this show, at least for me, is Phife Dawg, who sounds like a kid who was just gifted a puppy, his excitement at being able to at least try to finish what he started with the rest of A Tribe Called Quest so contagious that it infects every single one of his collaborators. So even though not every idea on here works as a song, they work collectively as a whole, and there’s no better tribute to Phife Dawg that can be made. Even if Phife’s posthumous solo album ever drops (his single, “Nutshell”, is a fucking banger and depresses me every time I hear it just because of how good he sounds on it), it won’t pay proper respect to him the way Q-Tip, Jarobi, and, in his own way, Ali Shaheed Muhammad did.

BUY OR BURN? Just buy this one. I’m not going to argue with you here.

BEST TRACKS: “Conrad Tokyo”; “We The People….”; “Kids…”; “Ego”; “Mobius”; “Black Spasmodic”

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
I’ve written about every A Tribe Called Quest album. You can catch up on those reviews by clicking here.



12 comments:

  1. Not gonna argue with you on this one, Max. Fuck the Grammys.

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  2. When this first came out and everyone was raving, I thought it was just a case of people wanting it to be good and I put off buying it. How often are reunion albums actually good? Especially when it's been almost 20 years? But I finally broke down, got it, and it was actually really, really good.

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  3. Oh no! Max called him a racist and a white supremacist!

    Trump's SURELY finished this time!!!

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  4. I guess Max is not happy with the lowest black unemployment rate in the history of the country.


    Dem whyte peeples be keeping us down, maine! Sheeeeeiiittt my niggga.

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    1. Fully aware that my comments won't change anything, but it makes me feel better. Fuck the GOP.

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  5. rest in peace, Phife. The last time you'll hear a funky diabetic

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  6. This is an interesting album for me. I liked it upon first listen, and if I ever go back and listen to it again, I think its a quality project.

    But I just never really have a desire to revisit it. If I want Tribe, their older stuff is better. If I want more modern Tribe music, Q-Tip's Renaissance is a far superior project with a similar vibe. So this album is good, I guess, but still kind of disappointing for me.

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    1. I get that: I prefer The Renaissance as well. But this Tribe album just hit me at a time when I needed it, and the review reflects that.

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    2. Absolutely understandable. Music is awesome like that

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  7. I'm not going to argue with you about the album. What I will contest however is your review of 'the space program'. For me, that beat is boring and unmemorable as shit and EXACTLY the type of shit the Ummah was doing on the last two albums; it sounds like a lazy, generic attempt at a lesser Dilla 'nut. When that song kicked off the album I groaned a little inside fearing it'd be more Beats, Rhymes... type shit. Thank god for we.. the people to wake me up

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  8. I've been waiting for your thoughts on this album for a while (oblivious given its age).

    Don't disagree at all, there are high points and low points in here but it's a decent final project with some great highs.

    I seem to have been asleep this past month given you're half way through a bit of stunt blogging... at least I know where my lunch hours will be spent over the next few days. Thanks, Max.

    We're not big fans of Trump over here in the UK either!

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  9. For a 90's hip hop head, this album was a pleasure to listen to.

    Conrad Tokyo blew my mind.
    Kendric and Phife sound great together.
    I wish this track was a bit longer with a verse from Q.

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