Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service Review

Early in 2016, many mocked the year itself as being notoriously note-worthy. Using the deaths of David Bowie and Prince as the prime examples, I always felt the doomsayers were being facetious. However, months have passed, Phife Dawg, founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, succumbed to complications with diabetes, the Chicago Cubs won the world series, and Donald Trump was declared president-elect. Last week, Leonard Cohen passed too. 2016 is not a normal year. Either that, or that doomsday trend is forming concretely. Musically, the same declarations of insanity can be applied, as De La Soul released their first album in 12 years, The Avalanches released their second ever in 16, and now A Tribe Called Quest is around, only to say hi and bye, after their monumental 18 year absence was marred by tumultuous relationships over varying beliefs. With little warning, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, a title coined by Phife Dawg that felt nonsensical to the group months ago, all too clear in retrospect, dropped with triple A features, a full group, and a sound that feels like they never left. A Tribe Called Quest's final sendoff just so happens to find them caught in turmoil, somewhere they've felt comfortable all along.

Leave it to fate or bad timing, We Got It From Here will now forever be regarded as the first Hip-Hop album released after Donald Trump was declared president-elect. And while the group couldn't have predicted such an outcome, the writing's on the wall that they feared something. And no, despite the ridiculous coincidence, the album's final track, 'The Donald,' is not a reference to the aforementioned politician, but a tribute to Phife Dawg using his nickname. However, the fluke aside, We Got It From Here still feels politically-charged, sometimes in more obvious instances than others. See it as the mentor learning from the mentee, A Tribe Called Quest has clearly taken influence from Kendrick Lamar's latest works, To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, both inspired by the messages of the DAISY age movement Tribe headed decades ago. We Got It From Here wastes no time delving into current discussions, as 'The Space Program' implores the black community to make the best of a dire situation, while 'We The People...' sees Q-Tip flipping the script, parroting Donald Trump's racism, classism, and xenophobia in an attempt to warn those falling under that umbrella.

Really, We Got It From Here doesn't spend its 16 tracks fooling around. While a few moments here and there don't make quite the impact, there's a handful of noteworthy ones worth elaborating upon. 'The Killing Season' condemns the actions of war and the pointlessness of it all by having Talib Kweli spit peaceful activism in a verse, Kanye West recite a simple message in the hook. 'Melatonin' captures the inevitability of drug addiction and the ease in which one can engage. 'Conrad Tokyo' finds Phife Dawg and Kendrick Lamar speak over police brutality and social injustice. And 'Ego' finds Q-Tip revisiting topics of his, and the Native Tongues', past by reflecting on the stubbornness of himself and others. Finally, two tracks which could've been groan-worthy and labelled as le wrong generation after a quick glance at the tracklist, 'Dis Generation' and 'Kids...,' actually dispel notions of negativity adults inflict upon those younger by siding with the kids themselves. Talk about refreshing. Better yet, musically speaking, the former finds Busta Rhymes trading bars with the Tribe as if it were the early 90's, as the latter sees Andre 3000 and Q-Tip do the same, easily making these two tracks clear standouts.

While it's clear, content-wise, that the Tribe hasn't lost a step, We Got It From Here wouldn't mean anything had it not found a balance musically between their past and Hip-Hop's present. Thankfully, somehow, they did. While De La Soul's 2016 album, And The Anonymous Nobody, was able to sound unique thanks to the group's already boundary-pushing nature, the 90's Tribe's rather ordinary Boom Bap shouldn't have transitioned well. And in theory, it doesn't. Sonically, there's nothing exceptionally different here, either for the group or for the genre. Classic Hip-Hop dominates almost every song, as samples, either taken from films, 70's and 80's Soul, and even, in one instance ('Enough!!'), the Tribe's own music, coalesce with drums, guitars, and backing vocals. The premise is simple, and yet many tracks still make an impact. 'Black Spasmodic' has a funky bounce with a childlike sample, 'Lost Somebody' sees Q-Tip dance over a piano melody and earnest female vocals that get expanded upon by the end, and 'The Donald,' while not doing anything particularly interesting, molds each facet gracefully, as bass, DJ scratches, and some bleeps and bloops somehow all work together.

With 16 tracks, some are bound to disappoint though. In the sonic sense, 'Whateva Will Be' and 'Mobius' are just bland and bring nothing identifiable to the table, the former cruising in generic Boom Bap land, the latter trying to go technological, failing to sound anything but dated. Not just that, a couple songs find the Tribe darting around aimlessly, something that was certainly present on their classic albums too. 'Enough!!' and 'Ego' are the best examples of this, not because they don't have a point, but more so the point hasn't evolved since they last entertained love and internal impulses two decades ago. Take it as a positive or negative, these two, and a few fair others ('Melatonin,' 'Whateva Will Be') could've easily appeared in the 90's without someone questioning just how they time travelled backwards. It's when others get involved, or the Tribe system works effortlessly, that We Got It From Here excels. Surprisingly, neither Q-Tip or Phife have lost a step, invigorated and comfortable playing duality off each other. Jarobi, on the other hand, feels a tad lost in the muck. His rhyme schemes, flows, and content aren't bad, they're just as average as he was over two decades ago when he stepped away from the limelight.

Surely thanks to their massive influence, the robust guest list brings their A-game through and through. Busta Rhymes, often seen as thee unofficial Tribe member, appears four times here, using his highly accentuated Reggaeton delivery on half those tracks, something Phife Dawg also does on 'Solid Wall Of Sound.' I find these verses tacky, but if there's two people who could somehow pull it off, it's those two. After that, 'Kids...' features Andre 3000 in bulk, something only the Gorillaz were able to do back on 2012's 'DoYaThing.' Both him, and Kendrick Lamar on 'Conrad Tokyo,' are expectedly great, but never overshadow the Tribe. The only one who does, in a negative light, oddly enough, is Anderson .Paak who essentially has a solo track with 'Movin Backwards.' The piece, found late on We Got It From Here, feels uncomfortably forced. The song isn't bad by any means, but every other guest has some potent connection to the Tribe, whether it's Consequence, Kweli, or West. Anderson .Paak just doesn't feel like he should be there, that's all. Point still stands that every voice here, even the uncredited female vocalists on 'Melatonin' and 'Lost Somebody,' help to entice We Got It From Here's pleasure principles.

There's one matter left to discuss though, and that's just what Phife Dawg meant by the mysterious title that confounded Q-Tip, Jarboi, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. On the surface, it seems purposeless, even using the cliched '4' in place of 'for.' But, as with any good title, any good artist, there lies multiple meanings that are left for the listeners to discuss. Here's how I see it, and the answer, as we're all too accustomed to in 2016, is quite morbid. Phife Dawg knew he was dying soon, and wrote the title from the perspective of the other members, or even Hip-Hop as a whole. You could also construe the '4' as the four members of the group, where then the title comes from the perspective of the fans. And finally, while I don't necessarily find it to be true, the politically-charged nature of the album could imply the title is thanking President Obama, co-signed by the black community. With a future as unclear as ever, this interpretation could be as uplifting as it is grim. It's up to the individual to decide. And really, that's the beauty of We Got It From Here as a whole. The Tribe came back, the Tribe left. What we do with their final work is entirely up to us.

No comments:

Post a Comment