Athletes retire; artists die. On March 22, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor – the funky diabetic – finally lost his career-spanning fight with diabetes at the age of 45. What started as a strain on his relationship with the Tribe (most infamously, Q-Tip), doubled as a beautifully fitting jolt of mortality to bring everyone together for a parting piece.
After 18 years of silence, A Tribe Called Quest’s latest album features all four of the founding members, including Jarobi White, who left the group before the release of The Low End Theory in ’91. Though Pfife couldn’t make it to the album’s release or the stunning SNL performances, his voice haunts the project and the minds of hip-hop purists for generations to come.
The title alone lends itself to some sort of cryptic sendoff: We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Legend has it that Phife himself chose the title, without explanation. But would he really thank himself for his services? Released suspiciously close to the presidential election, perhaps the title doubles as an ode to another Black American. Perhaps he foresaw a nation built on slave labor replacing its first African-American president with a man who campaigned on hate speech. Why else does the album close with “The Donald”?
Rap music – the music of America’s cracked pavement and sidewalks – provides distillations of our political climate unlike any other medium. I wasn’t around in ’93. I can’t speak on how Midnight Marauders shed light on the issues of its time, yet it’s clear as day how A Tribe Called Quest has channeled the pulse of its People for over 30 years. We Got It from Here is not a case of old dogs performing new tricks.
Though elements of songs from over 25 years ago are still present throughout the album, Q-Tip’s forward-thinking creative direction has proven to be timeless. The bassline funk of “Sucka N****” lives on within “Whateva Will Be,” but is retrofitted this time with glitchy soul chops and syllables. Considering how a song like “Excursions” was such an outrageous deviation from the N.W.A. and Public Enemy of its time, history shows that we shouldn’t be surprised at how gracefully Tribe has aged.
They’re not some band of washed up, out-of-touch conservative hip-hop heads. They are permanently embedded into the canon of American rap music, and it’s awesome to see their awareness of it 18 years after the fact. On “Dis Generation” Q-Tip jibes “Talk to Joey, Kendrick and Cole / gatekeepers of flow / They are extensions of instinctual soul.” The entire song is a proverbial passing of the Zulu torch.
The same inclusive approach to collaboration that birthed the Native Tongues has yielded an album roster with friends old and new alike: Kanye West, André 3000, Jack White, Consequence, Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli, Anderson .Paak and of course the ever-present Busta Rhymes.
The range of guests can make Thank You 4 Your Service almost feel like a high-school-reunion-turned-going-away-party. Some friends come and go, some stick around longer. Kendrick Lamar stops by for only 20 seconds on “Conrad Tokyo,” but squeezes every bit of life from within him to conjure a verse that could make you believe that maybe, just maybe, it’ll bring Phife back.
The most damning thing about the record is that maybe this isn’t a world that Phife would even want to re-enter, anyways; Lamar, 29, and Phife, 45, are generations apart but participants in the same Black American experience: “Trump and SNL hilarity / Troublesome times kid, no time for comedy / … / Bullshit you spewing / As if this country isn’t already ruined.”
Old friends bring with them the warmth of tradition and familiarity. Busta Rhymes’ fingerprints are predictably all over the album, illuminating tracks like “Mobius” and “The Donald” with the energy of reunited homies. You can practically hear how giddy he is to share a studio with Phife, switching directions mid-verse in his classic scatterbrained delivery: “Ayo wait wait wait, I gotta go again!” He never does go again, opting instead to drop hilarious pieces of street wisdom: “Keep it moving / Keep the convo short / Bring a case of Henny.” Bussa Buss’ prominence on We Got It from Here is a reminder of the grassroots spirit Tribe has carried since Instinctive Travels; always have fun with it, and it shows in the music.
Album-opener “The Space Program” is similarly vintage Tribe, with Jarobi speaking on the prison-industrial complex in the absolute zaniest fashion possible: “Rather see we in a three-by-three structure with many bars / Leave us where so many are, so they can play with the stars / They takin’ off to Mars, got the space vessels overflowing / What, you think they want us there? All us n***** not going.” Tip chimes in more bluntly: “There ain’t no space program for n******.”
Tribe’s transformation hasn’t been limited only to their sonic palette. Most interestingly, their range of political concerns have expanded as well. In a year that has already seen Young Thug don a (very nice) dress on the cover of Jeffery, “We The People” is one of the most tastefully in-your-face pieces of social commentary this year. The heaviest synth in the entire Tribe discography twists and growls under a hook that’s jarring out of sheer simplicity: “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.” Even Phife hits his native Patois accent from beyond the grave. It’s the energy of Run The Jewels but without the corny bullshit.
If the uncredited features help shroud the project in mystery, the back-and-forth verses and left-field beat switches make the album excitingly unpredictable for a genre based on repetitive loops. One of the most pleasant surprises is the Kanye West feature on “The Killing Season”; with only three words, not only does his voice take the song by storm, but the soundscape beneath him practically falls through a trap door.
What starts as an archetypal Afro-funk beat makes way for a series of crooning melodies that Tribe has never even experimented with. Consequence picks up where ‘Ye leaves off, and the beat never returns to its original state. In the arc of the proverbial going away party, it feels like the part of the night where friends are drunk enough to squash their beef; maybe the departure of a friend reminds them both of what’s really important: “Take a bow / This might be your last performance.”
While We Got It from Here is largely a celebratory end to one of the greatest stories ever told, an undertone of the album is this certain anxiety about death. The going away party ends, your friend leaves, and what’s next for you? What’s next for your friends? What did you learn from the life of someone you liked enough to be around? Thank You 4 Your Service doesn’t pose any solutions, nor does it try to be something it isn’t. The simple “thank you” is in the title. Thank you, and Rest In Beats, Dawg.