Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: A Tribe Called Quest We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

David Bowie knew that Blackstar would be his goodbye. Leonard Cohen knew that You Want It Darker would be his goodbye. And there’s at least some chance that Phife Dawg knew that his group A Tribe Called Quest’s final album would be his last word to the world. Phife died earlier this year at the age of 45, decades younger than either Bowie or Cohen. But he’s been suffering from diabetes for years, and he’d gotten a new kidney from his wife in 2008. Phife was the driving force for getting A Tribe Called Quest back together to make new music; Q-Tip, who’d been resisting the idea for years, finally caved after the group’s reunion performance on The Tonight Show last year caused everything to click. But to make the album, Phife had to spend months flying back and forth between his Oakland home and Q-Tip’s home studio in New Jersey, and the exhaustion from all that travel may have hastened his sudden decline. Talking to The New York Times, Tribe’s Jarobi White said, “Doing this album killed him. And he was very happy to go out like that.”

And like Blackstar and You Want It Darker, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service stands as a towering work of generosity, a monument to the lives of the people who made it. Those other albums were about confronting the abyss and smirking at it. But We Got It From Here is about something else. It’s about joy — about friendships reconnected, reputation reclaimed, and synapses firing the way they once did. Maybe it was terrible for Phife’s health, but the fact that the group recorded the album all in the same place is crucial to its easy, organic sound. That is not the way rap albums are recorded anymore; people make music by emailing files to one another, and they’ve often never met their collaborators face-to-face. But for We Got It From Here, the group’s members made sure they were in the same space. All the members of the group and all the guests had to be in Q-Tip’s Jersey home studio to make the album; only Elton John and Kanye West got to record their parts remotely. And that approach paid dividends. Listening to the album, you can feel the camaraderie in that room — and that camaraderie is a huge part of what made Tribe great in the first place.

I only saw Tribe live twice, and both times, it was in that late-’90s era when internal tensions had begun to fracture the group, when Tip and Phife reportedly couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. But watching them onstage, you couldn’t tell. The giddy, irrepressible give-and-take of their early years — the dynamic of Tip’s celestial flights being grounded by Phife’s earthy humanity — came through onstage as well. You could see all the members of the group pushing each other to do their best. And that, once again, is the dynamic at work on the new album.

There’s an appealingly shaggy looseness to the record. These guys aren’t taking turns rapping 16-bar verses. They’re jumping in on one another, rapping in tandem, switching off the baton in the middle of a line. Jarobi, who left the group in 1991 and who I always thought of as a hypeman rather than a rapper, gets nearly as many verses as Tip or Phife, and he sounds great. Consequence and Busta Rhymes, both of whom were essentially unofficial members of the group at different points in Tribe history, get plenty of chances to shine; one song, “Mobius,” features only those two guys, with no members of Tribe, and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. (Cons on “Mobius”: “Ooh child, things are gonna get easier / As long as they get my page right on Wikipedia.” I love that line.) Tribe were always great rap improvisers — not in the words they were rapping so much as in the goofy new patterns they would come up with on the fly. And that old playful energy is back, too. Q-Tip, in particular, will try out eight different cadences in the space of a single verse. He sounds like he’s having fun again. They all do.

Phife didn’t get to finish the album. That much is clear. In that Times piece, we learn that he got to be there when some of the guests would record their parts. And that’s great. But there’s also that Eyes Wide Shut feeling that maybe the album would’ve been a little different if one of its creators had lived to see it through. There are plenty of parts on the album where Tip, in particular, raps about Phife in the afterlife. On “Black Spasmodic,” Q-Tip raps an entire verse as Phife, saying the things that Phife might say to him if he could: “Speak of the legacy for short people around the world / Napoleonic bionic people who cause the world to twirl.” He ends it with this: “And please check in on my mother.” It’s heartbreaking. I’m tearing up just transcribing it.

Phife also gets the last word on the album: Closing track “The Donald,” which has nothing to do with our new President. Instead, it’s one final burst of glorious shit-talk from Phife. There are moments on the album where Phife struggles a bit to summon his old energy, but “The Donald” is not one of them. On “The Donald,” Phife catches a wave: “Untouchable in my zone, watch the tone, leave ‘em alone / Fuck your ass-cheek flows, sweeter than scones / Put down microphones.” Elsewhere, Phife does address Trump — specifically, I’m pretty sure, blasting SNL for bringing Trump in to host and thus making him seem like something other than a budding dictator: “Why y’all cool with this fuckery? / Trump and SNL hilarity? / Troublesome times, kid, no times for comedy.” This past weekend, Tribe gave their first Phife-less performance on the first episode of SNL since Trump’s election. I can’t imagine how weird and hard that was for everyone.

Another weird thing: Because of the circumstances of its release, We Got It From Here is the first Tribe album that doesn’t have Q-Tip as its focal point. Tip remains one of rap’s all-time greats, and he’s masterful and energized here, doing subtle things with his voice that can just spin your head around. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten to hear Q-Tip just rap for extended periods of time, and the album has me wondering where this Tip has been for the past decade or so. He might be the only rapper on the planet who can drop a line like “my thrust bust artery” and make it sound charming. And there’s an overwhelming happiness to his voice for most of the album, one that extends to all of Tribe’s spiritual successors: “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul.” (I know that older generations of rappers really love J. Cole, but I’d prefer to think that he’s on that list only because his name rhymes with “flow” and “soul.”)

And Busta Rhymes also deserves a special mention here. For at least the past decade, it’s been easy to tell when Busta is trying to adapt to the times. Sometimes, he does that well; think of the mind-boggling triple-time flow on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now.” More often, though, he’s been just numbingly corny. But that is not what he’s doing on this album. Instead, he’s back to the firestarter rah-rah flow that he brought to so many of his past Tribe collabs. He sounds possessed, like he can’t believe he finally has the chance to do this again and like he’s not going to let it go to waste. You can practically hear his dreads growing back. All of the album’s guests — Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000 — sound honored to be there, and they all step up accordingly. But Busta is just on another planet with it. He’s caught the spirit, and I would dearly love to see him keep that joy the next time he makes a record of his own.

Musically, the album has a bubbling murk that fits the group beautifully. Q-Tip, who quietly has one of the best production resumes in all of rap music, produced the entire album, and he also played bass, drums, and keyboards on many of the tracks. In the past, Tribe have had to think about things like radio play when they were working; on every previous Tribe album, it’s been easy to pick out the singles — they stand out from the rest of the album. It’s hard to even pick a highlight on We Got It From Here; the album is constructed to play as one dazed, atmospheric whole. Plenty of tracks have no hook or discernible structure whatsoever. It works for them.

Phife isn’t the only ghost hanging over the album; you can also hear the influence of J Dilla, Tribe’s close collaborator on their last two albums. Dilla’s shadow looms tremendous over just about every underground rap record that’s come out since his death. And so the fractured, organic beats here don’t sound dated; they sound like close cousins of the tracks that producers like Madlib, Knxwledge, and Alchemist are making these days. That’s the real heartbreak here: A fully revitalized Tribe, unlike just about every other great group from the ’90s, could’ve been a serious creative force on today’s rap landscape. We won’t get anything beyond this album. But at least we still get this album. It’s no small thing.

It’s such an unexpected joy to get a Tribe album like this at this late date that it’s going to be tempting to overrate it. I’m trying to modulate my enthusiasm here. This is not Tribe’s best album. It’s not close. The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders and even People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm exist in a rarefied air, and I’d be committing critical malpractice if I elevated this album to that level, especially at this early date. It’s more on par with something like Beats, Rhymes & Life or like Tip’s underrated solo album Amplified.

Still, can you believe that we have any Tribe Called Quest album like this? That we get it right now? That it captures a group that, after years of internal recrimination, once again sounds elated to be a group? I can’t. It feels like a mirage. In a week when everything went wrong, when monsters became leaders and when heroes died, We Got It From Here stands as a towering monolith of sweetness and playfulness and joy. It’s a feel-good story in a time when we desperately needed one. Don’t take it for granted.

We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is out now on Epic. Stream it below.