Somehow, A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album is both overdue and perfectly timed.
It’s overdue because, well, it’s been 18 very long years since the beloved hip-hop group put out an album. There’s a whole generation of rap fans who might not have ever spent much time listening to the group, a thought that likely frightens the older heads to the core.
It’s perfectly timed because if there was ever a moment for soulful, life-affirming, convention-bucking hip-hop, it’s right now. I hope I don’t need to spell out why.
On top of all of this, the great Tribe cornerstone Phife Dawg died this past March, before the album’s completion. He still plays a large role on the record, but the sense of an ending — for him, for the group, maybe for an era — is unavoidable.
Luckily, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service not only satisfies its lofty expectations, it often exceeds them. The album doesn’t quite place up among Tribe’s best works — few things ever will match classics like their 1990 debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders— but it does vividly demonstrate the group’s unassailable greatness and continued relevance.
The strong tracks come early and often. “The Space Program” brings Tribe’s sharp political perspectives to the forefront. “For Tyson types and Che figures / Let’s get it together, make something happen,” Q-Tip and Phife offer on the first verse. The next track “We the People…” is even more unforgiving. Q-Tip takes down coldly takes down the likes of Vh1 and gentrification before getting to the chorus: “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.” Some of the album’s best songs, from “Whateva Will Be” to “Melatonin,” mix powerful messages of social activism with seductively silky grooves.
But it isn’t all political. The stellar “Dis Generation” shouts-out rap’s emerging class of greats, particularly artists who’ve carried the torch of Tribe’s legacy: “Talk to Joey, Erl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of the flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul.” “Enough!!!”, on the other hand, is straight sex, a song for the intimate, candle-lit moments with your significant other. Elsewhere, “Lost Somebody” is a touching ode to Phife, the kind of sad but uplifting song that you can see being played a lot in the future for fallen loved ones.
Of course, the nostalgia factor will have a lot to do with fans’ enjoyment of this album. That classic, timeless Tribe sound — smooth, jazz-infused, golden-age hip-hop — comes through. Q-Tip handles production throughout, which explains the album’s sonic consistency with the group’s prior catalog. Beyond that, the contributors are either old friends or stylistic heirs: Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Andre 3000. Even the modern references will make an old-timer smile; there’s something oddly grin-inducing about hearing Q-Tip peeling off lines like “I got directing without Waze.”
With 16 tracks, the whole album isn’t uniformly great; there’s a handful of songs, mostly towards the end, that probably won’t make it on any best-of retrospectives. The very last cut, however, deserves attention. It’s Phife Dawg on the mic — his exit track. Titled “The Donald,” it has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with Phife. The song serves as a boast for his skills, a tribute to his life, and proof of his genius. Like the whole album, it proudly declares that no matter what happens, A Tribe Called Quest will never leave us.