Until recently, the odds of the Cubs winning the World Series and a Donald Trump presidency seemed slim if not fantastical, but still more substantial than the existence of a new A Tribe Called Quest album.
Despite sporadic reunion tours over the past decade, the Golden Age hip-hop legends were destined for permanent dissolution, with Q-Tip and Phife Dawg living on opposite coasts and harboring seemingly irreconcilable grievances. Those were captured in all their tense combativeness in the 2011 documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.”
But in the aftermath of last November’s “Tonight Show” performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of their debut, the group covertly re-formed and embarked on a path that ultimately produced their best album since 1993’s “Midnight Marauders.”
The brilliance of the new “We Got It From Here: Thank You 4 Your Service” stems partially from its ability to serve multiple purposes. Foremost, it functions as a requiem for the greatest sidekick this side of Scottie Pippen, Phife, who died in March at 45 due to complications from diabetes. But it’s also a caustic political screed against the xenophobic and bigoted forces that helped elect Trump, and somehow still a celebration of the chemistry, musical adventurousness and irrepressible joy that made Tribe the platonic ideal of a rap group.
What the foursome (also including Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) has achieved is almost unthinkable: shedding two decades of rust to create something that neither traffics in nostalgia nor mimics the past, while retaining the Day-Glo fluorescence, mystic chords and jazz-fortified aesthetic that made them stars in the first place. If Phife didn’t update his references to Muggsy Bogues for ones in favor of John Wall, you could almost be convinced that this was originally recorded in 1992 or 1998 or 2006.
Of course, Tribe always rapped about more than just point guards. Whereas one-time peers like Public Enemy and Ice Cube unleashed radical politics with battering-ram intensity, Tribe always articulated similar themes with smoother equilibrium. A song like “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” balanced Mad Cobra references and Sunday-barbecue cool with a title paying tribute to the murdered South African anti-apartheid leader and founder of the black consciousness movement.
That subversive streak has returned in these strychnine times. On “We the People,” Q-Tip sardonically inverts the Constitution’s preamble and croons hooks like, “All you black folks you must go/ all you Mexicans you must go/ all you poor folks you must go.” On the album finale, “The Donald,” they redeem Trump’s nickname and assign it to Phife, belatedly adding it to his already indelible litany of aliases (“the five-foot assassin,” “the five-foot freak,” “the funky diabetic,” “the Trini-Gladiator” and “Dynomutt”).
The mission becomes immediately clear on “The Space Program,” the first track of the hourlong odyssey. In his trademark Muppet-huffing-helium timbre, Q-Tip spits, “This time we’re going left and not right,” a sinistral declaration of artistic and political principle – a refusal to play it safe. They dedicate it to brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and the dead. A snippet of Blaxploitation classic Willie Dynamite sneers that “they need to come together” and “come down hard” – a testament to both resistance against reactionary forces and a more personal mantra.
Q-Tip insisted that everyone – including album guests such as Kanye West, Jack White and Kendrick Lamar – come to his studio in New Jersey to record their contributions. It’s an anachronistic approach in an era of emailed Pro Tools files, but one that reignited an alchemical formula that had ostensibly expired decades ago. Q-Tip claimed that he hadn’t seen Phife that happy since they were kids, which is what you’d expect him to say while promoting their first group album since Joey Bada$$ was 3, but it’s the sort of thing that can’t be faked in the vocal booth.
Most truly great music involves some inalienable voodoo, chemistry or soul that can’t be achieved through will or repetition. On those first three albums, Q-Tip and Phife had it like Keith and Mick, McCartney and Lennon, Russell Westbrook and lens-free glasses. They completed each other’s sentences like twins on a sitcom, until Phife moved to Atlanta and complained about being portrayed as the Tito Jackson of the group.
That same off-the-dial psychic frequency is all over “We Got It From Here.” And not only do Phife and Tip defy middle-aged complacency, but their longtime conspirators Consequence and Jarobi deliver the best performances of their careers. Even Busta Rhymes raps like he grew his dreads back and just stepped off the set for the “Woo Hah (Got You All in Check)” video.
The other guests largely reflect those contemporary greats whom Tribe inspired who later inspired Q-Tip. Kanye bellows a sepulchral hook on “The Killing Season,” but you can spot his production influence on a song like “The Space Program,” where the rappers commune back-and-forth with a vocal sample. Or there’s “Kids,” where Andre 3000 and Tip make vulgar jokes, pour liquor on the graves of cops, and offer a belated “well, actually” retort to “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The keyboards recall Kraftwerk and the hook resembles OutKast’s “Art of Storytellin’ 2.”
Jack White periodically pops up, pale and ghostly, wielding a guitar that he plucked off Q-Tip’s wall and delivering a riff that sounds like “Hello Operator” for the iPhone 7 age. Near the end, Lamar materializes to invoke Bible books and rattle off a machine-gun flow. Q-Tip cited Lamar’s track “Money Trees” as another one of the album’s touchstones, and you can detect Lamar’s double-time in his cadences. But Q-Tip has synthesized these inspirations into the Tribe principles sweeping up almost everything worth emulating from the past quarter-century of left-field cerebral hip-hop.
If political turbulence offers its intellectual compass, Phife’s death lends the record its spiritual pulse. Both “Black Spasmodic” and “Lost Somebody” could easily be maudlin tributes to their recently departed partner, but they instead stand as memorials that can exist somewhere between 2Pac’s “How Long Will They Mourn Me” and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” On “Black Spasmodic,” Phife floats with his West Indian patois, effortless and cocky, his mouthing tangling slang and reinforcing his legacy one final time. “Lost Somebody” finds Tip divining his friend’s spirit in the recorded fragments left behind, trying to stitch the album together, mourn and make his best friend’s memory proud.
There are few, if any, hip-hop analogues for this achievement. Dr. Dre’s “Compton” followed a decade-and-a-half hiatus, but ultimately felt like an impressive coda celebrating a long-extinct golden era. De La Soul’s recent effort this year proved exactly how halfway attempts to modernize your sound can lead to it seeming monochrome. If anything, “We Got It” is the nexus between D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” It is at times political, at times spiritual, at all times focused on leaving behind a profound artifact. To paraphrase Auden, this shows an affirming flame at a time beleaguered by negation and despair.
When the world needed it most, A Tribe Called Quest delivered on that most difficult task: They made a Tribe Called Quest album.