A valid question: What is a new Tribe Called Quest album doing in 2016? Rap has stretched and expanded well beyond the parameters Tribe explored in their 90s heyday, so it’s not like Tribe are breaking new musical ground. Phife Dawg, the 5-foot assassin that gave the group its goofy humor and energy, died this past March, so how would Q-Tip and Ali even think about doing a record without Phife? But there’s a much more essential question to be asked: what more does Tribe have to say? For all the trials and tribulations that black America and others around the world have endured over the years (and what they fear they might endure in the next 4 years), the intellect of the alt-rap godfathers is almost demanded.
Q-Tip and co. clearly felt the same, which inspired the group (who have said on many occasion that the Tribe chemistry was dead and gone) to go back in the studio and preach through beats. We now have that sermon: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, the first (and final) Tribe album in 18 years. Gathered from studio sessions with Phife from last year and crafted with the likes of friends (Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Andre 3000) and fans (Anderson .Paak, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White). Despite the well-deserved fan fare a new Tribe album would bring, this is not a happy occasion. “We Got It From Here” is perhaps the darkest and grimiest of Tribe’s records, mirroring the bleak outlook of modern America. The likes of “We The People…,” “Kids,” “Melatonin,” “Conrad Tokyo,” and “Ego” feature low-key piano and guitar loops with high hats in the background propelling the group’s rhymes. There’s still the sense of jazz and groove in the tracks, but Tribe set scenes of grim environments instead of chill parties. “Mobius” sounds like a lost Wu-Tang cut with its ominous eastern-sounding sample and Busta Rhymes chomping at the bit. “Dis Generation” brings island guitars and sunshine from samples of Can and “Pass the Dutchie.” “Conrad Tokyo” bridges the dark atmosphere to the jazzy funk Tribe hops between with spacey synths and tapping drums, while “We The People…” is Tribe touching on boom-bap teo speak frankly about the views of street culture. Not only does Tribe have the balls to sample “Bennie and the Jets” as much to name the song it uses “Solid Walls of Sound,” but has the kindness to invite Sir Elton John himself (and Jack White) on for backup vocals. It’s protest music by way of the jukebox and a jazz club, something right up Tribe’s alley. The further the album goes on, the deeper Tribe sinks into the modern darkness of America. They sound angry, jaded, yet undeterred from connecting with their audience.
While no physical release is out yet, the record is downloaded as a two-disc set to separate the change in mood. Disc 1 is Tribe gently sticking their heads out into modern life. At first, with “The Space Program,” they cover the basic topics: poverty (“It always seems the poorest persons/Are people forsaken, dawg”), prisoners of the system (“Rather see we in a three-by-three structure with many bars/Leave us where we are so they can play among the stars”), and the cycle of time (“All these happenings is cycular, just happen different ways”). But then Tribe starts focusing their lens, starting with politics on “We The People…” Q-Tip’s chorus outlines the American immigration plan (“All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/So all you bad folks, you must go”), while the late Phife makes an emphatic entrance of his own (“You bastards overlooking street art/Better yet, street smarts but you keep us off the charts/So motherf**k your numbers and your statistics/F**k y’all know about true competition?”).
It’s almost spooky to hear Phife so energized and woke on this album, making his passing all the more sudden. Tribe gets existential on “Kids…,” with Andre 3000 on the chorus stating that all around the world is mere fantasy. Tip and Andre muse back and forth about the rebellious spirit of their youth (“My young n***a motto was, “F**k it, I’m already grown”/And I dream of when I’m sixteen, I’m out my home”), and how their old age has helped them sympathize with their elders (“So when they questioning you ’bout who or who you ain’t boning/Complaining that you always moaning/Never saying good morning/Storming out my house/And slamming doors like you paying bills/They been through it too, though”). Then comes “Melatonin,” where Tip struggles with his own anxiety and pops the sleep aide like Swedish Fish just to stay steady.
Then comes disc 2 with “Mobius,” featuring Consequence and Busta Rhymes throwing brag raps and tough guy posing (“I got bars like the cypher’s in the booth now”) and “Black Spasmodic” letting Phife do the same (“I take zero for granted, I honors my gift/Champion pen game, plus I’m freestyle equipped.”). Then comes “The Killing Season” where Consequence and Jarobi go back and forth over a haunting Kanye beat about police brutality and the prejudice stemming from it (“The old lady saw us on the lawn with the Henny/Turn the pool party into the one from McKinney,” “It must be killing season, on the menu strangefruit”). Tribe manages to discuss the nation’s next President on “Conrad Tokyo.” Featuring a very woke Kendrick Lamar (“Sayonara tomorrow, it’s just blood on the ground”), the track has Phife take aim at the very show his group performed on last night for having Trump as a recent guest instead of an obvious problem (“Gone on now, move with the f**kery/Trump and SNL hilarity/Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy/Blood clout, you doing/Bulls**t you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined”). Despite what “The Donald”‘s title implies, it’s actually one of two tributes to Phife with this one praising his indelible rhyme skills (“He’s a Trini gladiator, ain’t no need to take it further/If you wanna take it further your Huckleberry is here/Doctor of your holiday, Wyatt Earp ya like the tears.”) The other tribute is the somber “Lost Somebody,” where Tip goes as far as to detail Phife’s conception and the brotherly love he felt for Phife (“Despite all the spats and shits and ematically documented/The one thing I appreciate, you and I, we never pretended/Rhymes we would write it out, hard times fight it out/Gave grace face to face, made it right”).
And perhaps that’s what We Got It From Here really is: a tribute to Phife. It’s got goofy lines and the occasional nerdy references that he would apply, but the same intellectual observation of the world that Phife would stop and take heed to. With all of the things going on around the world and the political and social climate, Tribe could’ve just keep these recordings for themselves as a souvenir. But Phife, his energy on the record and his passing from the world, made this happen. When they performed on Saturday Night Live on November 12, the group dropped a huge banner in Phife’s honor, sticking a prominent flag into not only into New York City culture, but cultural history itself. If there was any doubt as to the definitive legacy and iconic status of A Tribe Called Quest, it’s washed away with one more black fist in the air.