‘Spread your arms if you really need a hug’, said Q-Tip in 1990, and on their first album in 18 years, A Tribe Called Quest look out at their country and decide that this sentiment is needed more than ever. Released days after the US election, the group come charging out of the gate with Space Program, a song about the continuing marginalisation of African Americans, ‘a mass un-blackening’, as Jarobi puts it.
One of the immediately striking things about We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is how energised everybody is. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and honorary members Consequence and Busta Rhymes bring the type of A-game group-dynamic rapping not heard from any of them since 1992’s Scenario. With no one emailing in parts until Phife’s health prevented him from travelling, the excitement and competition between them in the room is audible and electrifying.
Q-Tip’s production retains core elements of their classic recordings, while bringing it into the present day. Dub rhythms and jazzy basslines are prominent, while the use of electric guitars and keyboards recall his excellent solo albums, The Renaissance and Kamaal The Abstract.
With many of the more in-your-face songs sequenced in its first half, the record does lose some steam towards the end. The jazzy Conrad Tokyo is perhaps a little too laid back to justify its inclusion, and The Ego is the only point that feels like the group are self-consciously recreating their old sound. Similarly, Solid Wall Of Sound, which features Elton John over a Benny and the Jets sample, seems unfocused in the context of the tracks surrounding it.
The joy of hearing Tip and Phife ducking and weaving around each other once again, and of the surprisingly strong return of Jarobi for the first time since their debut, is bittersweet knowing, as with David Bowie’s Blackstar, that this is a farewell. The album’s title, chosen by Phife, is possibly a message to outgoing President Obama, but now appears to also reference his own passing.
The death of Phife, who passed away in March before recording was completed, is all over this album. The pain felt by his bandmates, expressed in several songs such as Black Spasmodic, Lost Somebody and The Donald, is heartbreakingly raw, but the project celebrates him, not least because he raps his arse off throughout.
Tribe’s youthful message of optimism proclaimed on Can I Kick It is still intact, if seen through the somewhat weary eyes of grown men in troubling times. On their strongest output since Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest’s final album is one of the year’s most important artistic statements about American race and class politics, unity and loss.
A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is out now on Epic Records/Sony Music Entertainment. Written for Beat Magazine.