It’s been 18 years since the legendary rap band A Tribe Called Quest blessed the universe with an album. As if A Tribe Called Quest predicted that President-elect Donald Trump and his incendiary rhetoric would win the presidency Nov. 8, Quest released its best, most politically charged and final album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service.
It wasn’t even known that the quartet — Q Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi — was working on album until recently, because of Phife’s passing in March. Yet this tragic loss to the band and the world of rap seems to pierce the album with a sense of longing but also an honoring of the past. If the relevancies of today pervade the surgical, biting lyrics, the beats of the album harken back to the jazzy, alternative-rap roots that made the band the legendary figure it is.
The politics infused in the album are immediately apparent on “The Space Program,” the first song on the album. As Phife spews lyrics over the opening song, there are moments rife with double entendres that successfully predicted the place the United States would be in Nov. 8. A Tribe Called Quest’s outrage is eerily prescient of the drastic turn the U.S. took from a Barack Obama presidency to a Donald Trump one. “For Tyson types and Che Figures / Let’s make somethin’ happen” is nothing less than a rally cry for a left-leaning (democratic socialism, anyone?) revolution to take place.
But the greatness and urgency of the album isn’t reduced to the opening song. This album stands as a magnum opus in every way, by not abandoning the sound that made A Tribe Called Quest so famous. With endlessly pointed social themes and the blendings of rappers, musicians and production styles, this is a masterfully mixed album from top to bottom that stands above genre comparisons.
On “Kids…” Andre 3000 and Q-Tip trade verses about the fantasy of the social hierarchy of the world that “kids” of color inhabit. “(Kids) Don’t you know all of this shit is fantasy?” Q-Tip and Andre 3000 yell together. It’s a comment on the “follow your dreams” path and how hard that is for people of color who aren’t afforded the same circumstances for success. But it’s also a hope for children to not succumb to the “hustle” present in their lives just for the monetary gratification. The touch of Andre 3000 only makes the wisdom-like tellings Q-Tip and Andre rap about both important to today and a nod to the classic rap era in which they created.
Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Consequence and Jarobi appear on “The Killing Season,” a song discussing how Black American neighborhoods are a battleground for the militarized police force. With “Strange Fruit” being mentioned and Kanye’s chorus of “They sold ya, sold ya, sold ya,” starting to sound more like “sold you, ya soldier,” ATCQ doesn’t hide the message from the masses.
While much of the album is dedicated to the democratic strife in the nation, the album becomes the band’s most searing work. The burning torch of a heart that runs through every song — much of which can be attributed to the album standing in as a melancholic wake for Phife Dawg.
Phife owns every song he’s in. Whether this is through an extended production period making Phife’s flows and bars even more grandstanding or the late-rapper simply never being better isn’t exactly clear. But as Kendrick Lamar appears on “Conrad Tokyo” with Phife, one would think the greatest working rapper would be the star of the song, yet even he can’t beat the unbreakably exuberant groove of Phife’s delivery.
If there is a stand out on the album, it’s the final song “The Donald,” clearly a reference to the ego of the reality television star now tasked with leading the U.S. The song, however, isn’t a critique of a presidency unseen but an honoring of Phife Dawg. Every time it would seem appropriate to attack the Donald, the song inverts with multiple singers rapping poetry-like lyrics dedicated to Phife’s legacy. With a cameo from Busta Rhymes and Phife himself — he’s his own hype man — it’s a bittersweet end to both Phife Dawg’s illustrious career and the finite conclusion to one of the best rap groups of all time.
After years of waiting for a new album, it’s safe to say that A Tribe Called Quest has released its best album. There’s nothing left to say except Thank You 4 Your service.
Levi Hill is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].