Eighteen years after the release of their last album, A Love Movement, and after the death of founder member Phife Dawg, A Tribe Called Quest have released We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Laurent Fintoni takes a closer look at an album that recaptures the group’s urgent message at a chillingly important time.
The defining message of Donald Trump’s campaign was fear. Fear of an ever-shifting other with a different skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or creed. Fear of the crippling status quo of neoliberalism. Fear that white people, and men in particular, are no longer the axis on which the world, as they understand it, revolves.
On November 11, 72 hours after the election result, A Tribe Called Quest released their sixth studio album and their first in 18 years, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory at the polls, four artists from Queens who helped refine hip-hop 25 years ago as a voice for the disenfranchised came back to remind us that art can speak for those who wouldn’t usually be heard.
Recorded over the past year, We Got It From Here… combines the political with the philosophical and the jovial with the dismal. At its core, it is a celebration of unity and life in the shadow of death, after founding member Phife Dawg passed away in March during the making of the album. It’s also a bold return for a group best known for its contribution to a different era of hip-hop. Crucially, however, We Got It From Here… is anything but nostalgic, brash as the best moments of Tribe’s catalogue and fueled by an artistic synergy that hasn’t aged.
In the 1990s, Tribe celebrated hip-hop’s transformative potential and established a unique voice through their disregard for perceived industry rules. They embraced the spiritual instead of the material, and pulled jazz into youthful relevancy. That approach is still in play today. Where so many acts fail to recapture what once made them great, Tribe never lost it in the first place. Like Kendrick Lamar or Young Thug, A Tribe Called Quest are artists who transcend simple commercial or critical boundaries to become living embodiments of a music’s spirit. This isn’t about a place or a style; it’s about hip-hop and what it can do for all of us, on an individual and collective level.
Produced by Q-Tip, with the recording taking place at his home studio in New Jersey, We Got It From Here… doesn’t kowtow to trends but instead threads the old with the new, juxtaposing the recognizable with the unexpected. The music tips its hat to Tribe’s sample-heavy roots by embedding elements of Black Sabbath, the Nairobi Sisters, and Can within skilled live instrumentation. Its anchor, though, is the lyrical sparring between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, one of hip-hop’s great musical partnerships.
After nearly two decades of separation and disagreements, the two mended their relationship in the making of the album. They still sound like they were made for each other, with Phife’s ruggedness rubbing against Tip’s flexibility in a playful and fluid way. As Tip puts it on ‘Lost Somebody’: “Despite all the spats and shits and immaculately documented / The one thing I appreciate, you and I, we never pretended.” Completing the spiritual rebirth of the group, Jarobi White returns after contributing to their 1990 debut and adds a stern dimension to the lyrics.
At its best, A Tribe Called Quest wasn’t just about the members of the group but about their extended hip-hop family; We Got It From Here… reminds us why. Longtime friend and affiliate Busta Rhymes and Tip’s cousin Consequence provide extra layers to the album, with the former sounding as essential as he did on the ‘Scenario’ posse cut. If ever there was an argument to be made for someone replacing Phife, Busta’s turn on this album says it without telling.
The album opens with a statement of intent from Phife and Tip, a choral incantation for unity and acceptance that is the undercurrent of much of the record. ‘The Space Program’ and ‘We The People…’ sketch the brutal contours of the African-American experience and life in America; ‘Dis Generation’ and ‘Kids…’ poke fun at generational gaps and celebrate rap’s enduring youth; ‘The Killing Season’ and ‘Lost Somebody’ are somber songs about death, loss, and mourning; ‘Solid Wall Of Sound’ flips Elton John’s ‘Benny And The Jets’ into a patois-ridden celebration of the power of music.
When the list of album guests was announced it was easy to assume there might be a faux-pas or two. Instead, Andre 3000, Jack White, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West add their own imprints without sounding forced, as do the studio musicians like keyboardist BIGYUKI and the album’s engineer and co-producer Blair Wells. The result is a testament to the musical maturity of Q-Tip, who spent over six months finishing the album. His touches can be heard throughout, from the abrupt cut in the chorus of ‘Lost Somebody’ echoing the suddenness of death, to the cut up ‘Bonita Applebum’ string sample on ‘Enough!!’, which links two of Tribe’s thematically similar tracks across decades. Reflecting life’s own subtle, often perplexing details, there is a world of intricacies to be found.
It seems difficult, if not impossible, to hear We Got It From Here… outside of the current political situation which America, and the rest of the world, finds itself in. And we shouldn’t. In 1857, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech about emancipation and the fight for freedom, asserting that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The career of A Tribe Called Quest, as a group and individuals, is a small reminder of that eloquent truth, and their choice to reunite after 18 years is proof that, although time heals, we must engage with what confronts us if what we stand for is to endure.
Laurent Fintoni is on Twitter