The latest work from 90s hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) called We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service dropped on November 11th, just three days after a presidential election that seemed to overshadow it. The album is ATCQ’s last, but also a comeback of sorts, since they released their fifth all the way back in 1998 and dissolved soon after. During their time (1990-1998), they grew into one of the biggest musical phenomena of the 1990s, with record after record receiving wide critical acclaim and many songs reaching high spots on Billboard lists.
For those who are new to the group, A Tribe Called Quest formed in Brooklyn in the ’80s under the influence of the east coast rap scene, the sounds of which don’t pack as hard of a punch as the gangsta rap of Los Angeles; instead relying on simple, heavy beats and well-crafted lyricism to create meaning. ATCQ adds to this format with their own jazzy inserts and creative sampling techniques, which not only made their music innovative in the 90s, but still sound great on recording today.
The primary members of the group are rapper Q-Tip, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and late rapper Phife Dawg, who tragically passed away in March of 2016 due to complications from diabetes. Rapper Jarobi White was part of ATCQ for their first album in 1990, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and left after its release, but he has collaborated since, and on We Got it From Here. Other significant figures for the group include Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip’s cousin, Consequence, who also feature on this record, alongside huge names like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Jack White, and Elton John.
The record itself is inextricable from both American politics and ATCQ’s emotional loss of Phife Dawg during the album’s recording. We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service also serves as a farewell to the fans of A Tribe Called Quest, and as a passing of the torch to a new generation of hip-hop artists. Who receives the metaphorical hip-hop torch? Q-Tip tells us himself on “Dis Generation,” a track about the success of ATCQ and that of a new generation of rap. He says it’s rappers like “…Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole, gatekeepers of flow,” who will “rule the nation,” applauding the work of Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole as they build their careers.
Stylistically, nothing much has changed since ATCQ last released, and this is for the better, making the work feel authentic and confident, even after 18 years of absence. There are, however, many implementations of Jamaican and other Caribbean styles throughout the album, with “Black Spasmodic” taking on an entirely reggae sound, complete with an accent on the part of Phife Dawg (the Caribbean styles are a nod to Phife’s Trinidadian descent). We Got it From Here has just the right amount of quirk, simplicity, and classic Tribe positivity to fit in with the rest of their ’90s corpus, making this album refreshing for me in our current time of highly-produced rap. This record feels like a classic hip-hop work brought into 2016, with all the character of the time period from which ATCQ originates, making this easily my favorite rap album I’ve heard in a long time.
At 16 tracks totaling an hour long, this is no small record, but every song in the mix is a necessary part of the experience. The tracklist starts out with a three political power-anthems, “Space Program,” “We The People,” and “Whateva Will Be.”
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“Space Program” is my favorite of the three. Q-Tip, Phife, and Jarobi call for action to fight racism and other oppressive constructs that leave the disenfranchised in the dust, using the metaphor of a space program. The hook, “there ain’t no space program for n****s/Yeah, you stuck here, n***a,” is the part of the song that sticks the most, showing how success, or reaching the stars, isn’t accessible to blacks the same way it is for whites. The verses of this song are full of indignation and stinging injustice, like many on this project, but ATCQ finds a way to make these songs feel powerful and uplifting in the face of all the opposition. It’s the songs like “Space Program” that feel especially empowering after the pain that many Americans faced following the presidential election. Phife’s chorus, “let’s make somethin’ happen/gotta get it together forever,” is a reminder that ordinary people can still enact great change, and I personally took hope from the message during a time that seemed dark.
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The album reaches an emotional high point later, on “Lost Somebody.” Q-Tip’s verse is a moving, heartfelt address to Phife Dawg himself, in which he tells of the hardships faced by Phife (calling him by his given name, Malik, meaning “king” in Arabic) and his parents in 1970s Brooklyn. It makes me pause and just feel for a second every time I hear Q-Tip speak of how proud Phife’s parents were of their child, and how “if you stare/light brown eyes’ll keep you there.” Q-Tip also acknowledges the creative difficulties he and Phife had while they worked together for ATCQ, comparing it to the way that brothers fight while growing up. The touching chorus, sung by Katia Cadet and set in front of a great piano part and characteristic ATCQ bass, brings the song together to make it a truly memorable piece. This is the softest track in the album in the best way possible, and it showcases just how deeply this work is felt, not just appreciated or understood.
ATCQ says goodbye on this record with “The Donald,” a full and proper tribute to the life and work of their partner and friend, Phife Dawg. No, the title of the song is not related to Donald Trump, but instead to one of Phife’s nicknames, “Don Juice,” which is called out throughout the song. There could not be a more fitting send-off from this group than this upbeat, easy going, final tribute from Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, and Phife himself. There’s only praise for “the Trini man” on here, for the way he “spit wicked every verse” and “had the man shook up,” as Busta raps with a Caribbean accent. On Phife Dawg’s part, the Five-Foot Assassin doesn’t show any signs that this is his final verse; instead, he’s welcoming challenges to his MCing prowess, portraying confidence with “who wanna spar? Haha, well, here I are.”
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Phife likely didn’t know what his final recorded words would be, given his sudden passing, but this verse is somehow fitting for his rougher, every-man’s attitude he’s cultivated in decades of working with ATCQ. The outro of the song is long and sprinkled with “Don Juice” and Jack White’s guitar, until Busta Rhymes gives a final, definitive “Phife Dawg” to finish off ATCQ’s fantastic career in the only appropriate way. We Got it From Here’s conclusion is humble, as the group gives away a chance to revel in their glory (and there’s a lot to revel in) so they can honor their deceased instead.
I am hard-pressed to find anything negative to say about this record. I only wish that I could say more about what I loved, on tracks including “Dis Generation,” “The Killing Season,” and “Moving Backwards” (take those as my “honorable mentions”). If you’re interested in features, you’ll find Elton John on “Solid Wall of Sound,” Kanye on “The Killing Season,” and Jack White’s guitar on most transitions in the second half of the track list.
Overall, this album is a masterpiece that comes straight out of the ’90s, but ATCQ does an excellent job of not only speaking to current political phenomena, covering racism, gentrification, and all of the harmful election rhetoric, but inspiring hope in these times that can seem so dark. In the same album, they also manage to pay their respects in full to the late Phife Dawg, whose name is fittingly immortalized as the group’s final recorded words. On top of that, they also come to terms with the end of their career as a group without any drama, giving way to a future of young rising stars that will continue the legacy of simple beats and premium lyrics. These elements make We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service an album of healing and reconciliation with the past and all the pain it holds; it’s an encouraging push towards a future that’s brighter than today, and I think that’s what a lot of us have needed in the past few weeks.
JOSH GEST | Yeah, Phife; For Your Life | KXSU Radio Reporter