A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite hip-hop group of all time, but if you had asked me a year ago year if the world needed a new Tribe Called Quest album—after an 18-year hiatus—I would have probably shrugged. If you had asked me back in March, when Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, the warm and irascible heart and wit of the group, shuffled off this mortal coil, I would have probably said certainly not. But if you ask me today, after a weekend spent listening to We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, whether the world needs a new Tribe Called Quest album, my answer is an emphatic yes.
For starters, We Got It From Here is startlingly good. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising: A Tribe Called Quest has never made anything other than good albums, including two—The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders—that rank among the very best ever made by anyone. This is A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth studio album, and its first since 1998’s The Love Movement, an underrated work that got buried in the late-1990s vogue for fisheye lenses, shiny suits, and senseless violence. But what’s dazzling is how incredibly organic We Got It From Here feels: This is neither a rush job nor a nostalgia trip, and it miraculously doesn’t even really feel like a reunion record. The chemistry between Phife and Tip feels as natural and alive as ever, as though the past two decades have been magically abridged into about two months.
There’s also nothing about this album that feels “throwback,” particularly on the musical side. The production on We Got It From Here is nothing short of exquisite, a welcome reminder that Kamaal Fareed, aka Q-Tip, is one of the finest musicians of his generation and one of the greatest that hip-hop has ever produced. He remains a master of sample-based music: “Solid Wall of Sound” interpolates Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” (with an assist from Elton himself), “Dis Generation” flips Musical Youth’s kid-reggae classic “Pass the Dutchie,” and “Enough!!” features a scratched sitar that sounds suspiciously like the riff from Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” that Tribe sampled on “Bonita Applebum” 26 years ago. There’s also more live instrumentation here than on previous Tribe albums. “The Killing Season” features a fuzzbox bass line by Q-Tip himself, Masayuki Hirano contributes swirling pianos on “Mobius,” and “Lost Somebody” and “Ego” each boast guitars courtesy of Jack White.
We Got It From Here features a small army of guest vocalists, too. Kanye West, André 3000, and Kendrick Lamar are among the enormously famous voices that pop up here, as does old fiend Busta Rhymes, who first appeared on a Tribe album as a teenager when he unleashed one of the great verses in hip-hop history on “Scenario” back in 1991. Probably the most surprising contributions on We Got It From Here come from Jarobi White, the on-again, off-again fourth member whose function in the group has never been entirely clear other than that, judging from his presence in Michael Rapaport’s wonderful documentary of the group, Beats, Rhymes and Life, he seems like an exceptionally great guy. White is more present on this album than all five previous Tribe albums combined and contributes a stinging critique of environmental-cum-racial injustice on the album’s opener, “The Space Program.” (“They’d rather lead us to the grayest water, poison, deadly smog/ the mass un-blackening, it’s happening, you feel it y’all?”).
But, as usual, Q-Tip and Phife are the stars here, and the lovely interplay between the laid-back, nasal cool of Tip and the gruff bark of Phife Dawg is as charming and lively as it was during the group’s creative peak. This might also be Tribe’s most explicitly political album since its 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, most notably on “We the People…,” with its chorus shouting out black folks, Mexicans, Muslims, and gays as victims of hatred and oppression. The song also boasts Phife’s best line: “We got your missy smitten rubbing on her kitten/ dreaming of a world that’s equal for women with no division.” Only Phife would boast that your girlfriend masturbates to thoughts of Phife’s own feminism, just as even from beyond the grave, only Phife can get away with it.
The final track on We Got It From Here is titled “The Donald” and has been widely misreported as being a song about Donald Trump, which it isn’t, really—while the track does use scratched clips of news reports about Trump, the title refers to one of Phife’s nicknames, “Don Juice.” It’s a song about Phife. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful if coincidental sleight-of-hand. Like many of us, I don’t think Q-Tip and the other surviving Tribe members ever really expected to release this album in a country awaiting the inauguration of President-elect Trump, even if they’ve claimed that Phife “had … a crystal ball or some shit,” but there’s something rather jarring about putting the track on, hoping to hear an excoriation of Trump, and instead getting something that’s maybe even better. The entire track is a tribute to Phife, and a beautiful one—after a verse from the Dawg himself, Q-Tip declares, “We gonna celebrate him/ elevate him/ papa had to levitate him.” Hearing those words was the best I’ve felt in days.
I have been listening to A Tribe Called Quest since I was 12 years old, and there is a particularly powerful comfort that its music provides me, and I’m far from alone in feeling this way. In the 1990s, Tribe was the leading purveyor of hip-hop that felt both utopian and rigorous, making music that was politically awake and intimate and life-giving all at the same time. There was something so warm and inviting to the interplay of Q-Tip and Phife, such smarts and humor and warmth and righteousness. They felt like my friends, or my cool older brothers, and when I was an adolescent they opened up entire worlds to me and taught me that the best music is a door to things larger and better than yourself.
Listening to this album feels like going home, and listening to it in November 2016 reminds me of the old Robert Frost line about home being “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” I have been thinking a lot lately about the horrid ways our country treats people who make beautiful things for it, the exceptionally American rot that comes with loving art made by people who are different than you while hating and fearing the people themselves. I found myself wondering how many people have danced to Q-Tip—a Muslim—and yet pulled the lever last Tuesday for a candidate who’s threatened to ban members of his faith from the country. The world absolutely needs a new Tribe Called Quest album, even if right now it feels like we don’t deserve it.