In a lot of ways, the latest and last album from jazz-rap legends A Tribe Called Quest, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, is really too good to be true. This is a record that dropped completely out of the blue for me at the end of last year – I had no idea it was in the making, and only heard about it when I saw a Facebook post from the group announcing its release. Being that the Tribe are quite possibly my favourite hip-hop artists of all time, I was equal parts excited and terrified to listen to this thing.
It’s a universal rule that comeback albums are almost always shit, and in a lot of cases their half-hearted and uninspired attempts to appeal to fan nostalgia often do more harm than help to the legacy of the group in question. In the last few years alone, a handful of my favourite artists ever have released comeback albums that were nothing but huge disappointments: Pixies’ Head Carrier, The Dismemberment Plan’s Uncanny Valley, Cannibal Ox’ Blade of the Ronin…
So imagine my surprise as I tentatively give a listen to the Tribe’s first album in almost twenty years, and the realization slowly dawns on me that…it is incredible. Not just a great album that brings back the things I already loved about the group, but a stone cold classic that actually pushes those things in new directions, and is on a par if not even better than their 90s material.
We Got it From Here… is not an album that trades in nostalgia. This is one of the most currently relevant and in-the-moment comeback albums I have ever heard. It deals frankly and poetically with the state of politics, race, music and life in 2016, and it updates the Tribe formula just enough to bring it up to speed with modern hip-hop without ever losing their distinctive sound.
There are the steady jazz-rap rhythms, the live drums and bass, and the laid-back, philosophical and socially conscious lyrics. But never before have the Tribe been as overtly political as they are on We Got it From Here…. This is made immediately clear on the albums second track ‘We the People…’, which contains an ominous vision of Trump’s New Great America: “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”.
2016 was a year of political division and a whole lot of controversy, and the Tribe remind us that we need music now more than ever as a unifying force. ‘We the People…’ serves as a stirring call to arms, and a reminder of how important it is to stand up for what you believe in alongside the people who believe it with you.
Elsewhere, ‘Dis Generation’ is another song that feels very of the moment, but this time with a focus on the world of music and not politics. It finds the Tribe in braggadocious mood, reflecting on their legendary status in the hip-hop world and passing on the torch to the new generation: ‘Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick and Cole, gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul’. Even as the Tribe prepare to bow out with their final record, they make it clear that the socially conscious hip-hop spirit and the intricately crafted lyrics of the so called ‘golden age’ are still alive and kicking in 2016.
And it’s at this point in the review that I need to mention the reason why this is the final Tribe album: founding group member Phife Dawg passed away on March 22, during the recording of the album. And while there plenty of reason to mourn the passing of one of hip-hop’s all-time greats, there couldn’t be a more fitting testament to his life and work than We Got It from Here…. The fact that he passed away halfway through the creation of the album, however, leaves it in an unusual state: the record features (fantastic) posthumous contributions from Phife himself, but also reflections from the surviving members of the group on his life and all too sudden death.
This proves to be the case on ‘Black Spasmodic’, quite possibly my favourite track on the album. Riding on top of an utterly joyful, buoyant reggae rhythm, the verse first finds Phife spitting classic, grin-inducing boast raps (‘You clowns be bum sauce, speak my name and its curtains’). But in the second verse Q-tip uses this most upbeat of songs to spit one of the most affecting verses on the whole record, channelling the voice of his lost friend to create a moving and very personal eulogy.
‘Lost Someone’ serves as a more mournful tribute, with a beautiful piano loop and a soulful boom-bap slide providing the musical backdrop to Tip and Jarobi’s reflections on Phife’s life and work. But the mood is never sombre even when it is sad, and the emphasis is always on celebrating Phife’s achievements rather than mourning his loss.
The same could be said for We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service as a whole. Never content to look backwards at what has already been achieved, the Tribe saw fit to bless the music world with one final album that drew a line under everything they had released to this point and then pushed even further into new and exciting territory. In a year that was dominated by controversy, division and musical deaths, We Got it from Here… was an urgent reminder to celebrate the things we love and never stop looking to the future. Long live the Tribe.
…And with that, my favourite albums of 2016 are complete. I know these reviews are coming very late and not too many people read them anyway, but it was important to me to try and find the time to finish this project even while travelling all over Australia. Thanks to anyone who did read my reviews, and please go check out some of the albums I’ve been writing about for what feels like months now.
I’ll repeat what I said last year: next time I will be writing reviews throughout the year rather than only at the end. I fully intended to do that in 2016 but it was very difficult to do while travelling. And I haven’t been able to listen to quite as diverse a collection of music as I sometimes would since Spotify is my only means of listening in Oz.
It might feel like a chore at times, but I do love writing these reviews and organizing my thoughts about music and the year in general. This is something I plan to do at the end of every year, and hopefully my writing and my knowledge of music in general will only improve as I go. So – I’ll see you in 2017, and peace out!