Wednesday, November 23, 2016

album review: 'we got it from here... thank you 4 your service' by a tribe called quest

I've said a number of times before that it's difficult to tackle legends... and hell, with as many comebacks as we've seen recently, it's made my job all the more complicated. And I guess I should have known as soon as De La Soul made their big return with ...and the anonymous nobody this year - which I absolutely loved, for the record - it would only be a matter of time before I had to talk about their Native Tongues contemporaries, A Tribe Called Quest.

And truth be told, I'm not really sure what there is to say here. I went back through their entire discography, and while I wouldn't quite say I loved it as much as De La Soul, I definitely get and appreciate Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, and the late Phife Dawg's work here. In terms of smooth yet conscious jazz rap, these guys were pioneers, and their albums have held up ridiculously well in terms of tones and textures decades later, and while I might prefer De La Soul's more experimental flourishes in production and wordplay, I can't deny that A Tribe Called Quest had a knack for stronger and accessible hooks, and they were plenty experimental all the same.

And thus when they broke up at the end of the 90s thanks to label frustrations, it stood to reason that we'd probably never get another album, especially when Phife Dawg died entirely too soon earlier this year. But somehow they had pulled together enough verses to make one last record, to pass the torch to the next generation. And just like with De La Soul, the list of collaborators on this project was extensive and often surprising, from old friends like Consequence, Busta Rhymes, and Talib Kweli to the new generation in Kendrick and Anderson .Paak to surprises like Kanye West, Andre 3000, Elton John and Jack White. All of this in another double album... man, I had to hear this. So I dug into We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service - did it deserve all of the critical acclaim?

Well, it does, so much as you like what A Tribe Called Quest deliver. And here's something I'd like to stress: while I'm not as crazy about this record as I want to be - I think ...and the anonymous nobody holds up as a stronger album overall this year, if this was the note that A Tribe Called Quest are looking to end on, it's a damn great one, mostly because it's exactly what you'd expect from A Tribe Called Quest gently updated for the modern day. If you haven't heard this yet - and you definitely should, it's really damn good - and you think you have an idea how this is going to sound... well, you're probably close to the mark, because while there is experimentation going forward, it's exactly what you'd expect from these guys, pretty much all for better. I won't say it surpasses The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders, but again, it's a ridiculously solid record to make a final hurrah.

And a lot of it comes with the general formula still holding strong: Q-Tip's more elastic and spiraling delivery, Jarobi's measured contemplation, and the late Phife Dawg holding his dominance in wordplay and content. The flows are incredibly solid, and once again it shows how these guys had some of the best interpersonal chemistry and balance in the game, switching off and on between bars especially on tracks like 'Dis Generation'. And their guests for the most part are completely game for the task - sure, you all knew that Andre 3000 would sound great against Q-Tip on 'Kids', but then you get Consequence and Busta Rhymes... and hot damn, it's such a pleasure to see Busta on point, he sounds great. It's almost enough to excuse 'Mobius', a song where none of ATCQ actually rap and Consequence and Busta take the lead... but Busta's verse is so damn good you hardly care! And just as importantly, on 'The Killing Season' they put Kanye West on the hook so he can't do any damage. And of course Anderson .Paak sounds fantastic on 'Moving Backwards', capturing that uncertainty at the possibility of rap music backsliding extremely well, especially after Phife's verse. The person I was surprised didn't get more was Kendrick, especially given that the group shouted him out as one to carry the torch going forward - just eight bars and an extended outro, it feels like he should have had more.

But going back to that 'passing of the torch'... yeah, that's pretty explicitly called out across this entire album, framed as a necessity in a world that really hasn't changed that much and in some cases might as well be getting worse. I talked about 'We The People' on Billboard BREAKDOWN yesterday, but the album opens with the rallying call of 'Space Program', to break free of the blur of hedonism and false narratives perpetuated by the media when class becomes the real issue - like it or not, if the world crumbles, minorities and the poor are going to be left behind. That frankness also carries into 'Whateva Will Be', where despite real systemic obstructions there's optimism going forward, providing the messages are conveyed well - there's a belief the younger generation is capable of picking up that torch, but that wisdom needs to come down right. That's one reason I like 'Dis Generation' and especially 'Kids' so much - holding their own in terms of talent, but accepting of what might come down and trying to shatter the hip-hop fantasy with some reality, even with the acknowledgement that many of them were chasing the same dream. And it does come with a heavy weight, as Q-Tip describes a sleeping pill addiction on 'Melatonin', even he finds more and more success, it's a route of silence and escape. And again, this is no passive succession - songs like 'The Killing Season' where Talib Kweli, Consequence and Jarobi lay down they won't be taking disrespect, especially in the face of a broken system and stark parallels to veterans in their own nation, and on 'Black Spasmodic' Q-Tip hears the rap spirit driving him, even as the optimist of the group, to assuredly consider the same... and the fact that said spirit is Phife lends this record a real gutpunch. It's telling that one of the most powerful moments on the record is the moment of silence that comes on 'Lost Somebody' after Q-Tip and Jarobi reminisce against Katia Cadet's gentle singing... only for Jack White's guitar solo to burst through. And even though it does ring as a little gimmicky, the final song 'The Donald' shows the name of the president-elect being reassigned to a man who actually could put his money where his mouth is - all the more telling, coming after a song about the balance between confidence and pride, aptly titled 'Ego'. 

So yeah, in terms of wordplay and flows and content, I'm nearly entirely on board, even if I do feel some points are a tad choppier than I'd like... but hell, that's pretty much the same thing I'd say about the production too! Now don't get me wrong, that cut-up style manages to warp more samples and instrumental ideas into working than I ever would expect, but as with any experimental record there are a few notes I didn't love. For one, that vocal sample on the hook of 'Space Program' just didn't mesh well with the rest of the otherwise great song, and there's a part of me that feels the muted elements on 'Conrad Tokyo' don't quite come through as strongly as they could, the song feels a bit unfinished overall. And while I think the flip of the sample of 'Bonita Applebaum' on 'Enough!!' is clever and well-handled, I've never really been a fan of artists sampling themselves especially one of their biggest hits - strikes a little as recycling. But beyond that... my god, there are some great tones and grooves here - that scratchy echoing beat, guitar and bass on 'Whateva Will Be', the broader riff that opens 'Dis Generation', the sharper drums against the jagged, slightly off-kilter guitar line on 'Melatonin', the distinct reggae vibe of 'Black Spasmodic', the bass rattle and piano of 'Lost Somebody' that ends with a short but potent solo from Jack White, who later plays backup on 'Ego'... it's astounding. And then you have the bigger experiments - the warping of the samples of the Elton John samples on 'Solid Wall Of Sound' that sound so much like 'Benny & The Jets' before the track ebbs back for Elton to sing directly with Q-Tip... but the one I probably dig the most comes on 'Movin Backwards' - the gurgle of bass and guitar that opens the song, but as Anderson .Paak comes in with the handclap starting on Q-Tip's short verse, you get all these subtly interwoven reversed fragments and it really flows incredibly well. Hell, the entire album goes down easy - this is a double album and it has so much organic character and groove that you'd probably never care!

In short... again, if this is how A Tribe Called Quest wanted to go out, they picked damn near the best way to do it. It's not perfect, but when a group experiments right to the end, you can't expect it. It's still great, through - 8/10, easy recommendation regardless of if you're a fan, and especially if you're looking for some quality hip-hop across the board. And even though he helped guarantee it, I get the feeling that Phife Dawg would be proud - don't miss this.

No comments:

Post a Comment