By: Fred Moody
Eighteen years ago Bill Clinton was President, the iMac just came out, Titanic set a box-office record at the theaters, Windows 98 was unveiled, and ‘A Tribe Called Quest’ released their album “The Love Movement”—thought to be their last. At least that’s what the music world concluded until a few weeks ago on October 27 when the group announced via social media three pictures of a handwritten letter addressed “To All The Good People Worldwide” that they would now be releasing their final Tribe album. With appearances from Tribesmen Consequence and Busta Rhymes, the album also includes notable features from Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Anderson. Paak, and Talib Kweli; none of whom disappointed. This announcement was received with elation from fans of the group all over the world. However, it was not met without skepticism as earlier this year on March 22 the leader of the group and Hip-Hop legend Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor passed away at the age of 45 from complications relating to diabetes. Even through both Phife’s death and an abnormally long hiatus, the group came together to release what should be considered one of the best albums of the year. Generally, when a group fades away for 18 years they are regarded as irrelevant when they return, yet the exact opposite is true with Tribe. Their music from the past had great staying power and is still appreciated today, but this latest release could not be more in tune with the current divided climate in America. The group that was always praised for making socially conscious albums you could still dance to definitely didn’t forget their roots. “We Got It from Here” could have easily been produced to be a walk down memory lane, and include unreleased verses from Phife and Q-Tip from years ago. However, sticking to their roots, they made new music for today and not 18 years ago.
“We Got It from Here,” is not the same sonically Afro-centric boom-bap Hip-Hop the Queens natives made in the 90’s. With production from Q-Tip, the album includes some of the obscure samples that he–a huge record collector–has always been known for. However, lyrically the group still spits poignant rhymes over beats that could kick out of any speaker. On this album especially it seems as though what they rap about carries even more weight, maybe because it’s post Phife’s death or maybe because of how it amplifies the current political climate. The social commentary on the album is very prevalent, most notably so on the tracks: “The Space Program,” “We The People….,” and “The Killing Season.”
The lead song on the album “The Space Program” carries extremely deep meaning and is produced at a level that is taken for granted far too often in new music. You can hear the hard work put into the song in the perfectly placed samples and the carefully crafted verses that too many rappers no longer care about. The song is a metaphor to describe that African-Americans, poor individuals and other minorities are being left behind in America. It alludes to disenfranchised groups suffering disproportionately in the Prison-Industrial Complex, while the affluent simply ignore the problem altogether–heard in the lyric, “Rather see we in a three-by-three structure with many bars/Leave us where we are so they can play among the stars.” Delving deeper into the meaning behind the song’s title, it could be linked to Martin Luther King Jr.’s sentiments back in the 1960’s about the U.S. spending billions of dollars to put a man on the moon and all but disregarding the economic inequality present on their own terrestrial ground. By putting a politically charged song at the start of such a highly anticipated album you could tell that they were not about let their voices go unheard.
This is followed up by the hit song, “We The People....” which discusses the extreme prejudices in our country today. This is the quintessential lead single for an album filled with protest songs and to understand the significance and true weight this song carries, you only need to pay close attention to the chorus, “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/So all you bad folks, you must go.” What ‘A Tribe Called Quest’ has done here is directly call out the injustices that are currently dividing our nation, especially after the election of Donald Trump as President. Q-Tip also examines the gentrification of neighborhoods which in his home-state of New York are becoming more and more common. Phife on the other hand, takes this opportunity to address the injustice in music appreciation and the fact that Top-40 songs are often the catchiest but have no deeper meaning to them. He alludes to this by saying these “popular” tracks are not representative of “real” music, but get mistaken as such by the general public and that the Tribe does in fact make “real” music. The iconic Chuck D has been quoted as saying that Hip-Hop music is kind of like “CNN for the African-American community” and Tribe really puts that on display throughout many songs on this album.
Their political commentary is not limited to the first half of the album. It continues into the latter half of the album on the song “The Killing Season” which features Talib Kweli, Consequence, and Kanye West. Talib Kweli has been a very outspoken rapper when it comes to politics and the oppression of African-Americans, so the inclusion of him on this song made perfect sense. Kweli discusses the ongoing fight for freedom in America through the use of references to war and the military. Consequence touches on the incident in McKinney, Texas where a group of black teenagers were wrongly mistreated for having a pool party that a neighbor thought “looked suspicious.” The talk of police, military and the militarization of police is not light in any way, and these topics are cemented further in the chorus by Kanye. The lyrics read, “They sold ya, sold ya, sold ya,” and are repeated 16 times over the course of the song. They are simple at the surface but if you listen earnestly you will recognize the near homophones sold, soul, and soldier–thus making the chorus sound like Kanye is saying “They sold ya soul, ya soldier” which hammers home the overall theme of ignorance, and the ongoing race war in America where both citizens and police are acting as soldiers.
Even though most Hip-Hop fans would have wished for a new album from ‘A Tribe Called Quest’ years ago, their re-emergence could not have come at a more advantageous time. “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” makes it obvious that even though 18 years passed by right before our eyes, the group that forever changed Hip-Hop’s lexicon continues to do just that.
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