We are entering a new era.
America is on the precipice of not simply a regime change, but a sociopolitical shift arguably unseen prior to this moment. While some celebrate the transition and cheer under the guise of the radical change they’ve eagerly awaited, others face the harsh reality that many aspects of life as we know it are about to change for the worse. We are justifiably worried—what happens now?
We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the sixth studio album by the legendary hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ), offers 60 minutes of nostalgic catharsis that both eases our anxieties and challenges us to consider our contributions to whatever is next. Though it’s been almost two decades since we heard from Tribe, We Got It From Here...closes that gap and picks up somewhere between 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life and 1998’s The Love Movement. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and Ali Shaheed each walked a separate path, though they never strayed too far from one another. Their reunion begs the question: What happens when hip-hop grows up?
In March 2016, founding group member, Malik Izaak Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, succumbed to complications relating to diabetes. Phife was only 45-years-old when he passed and hip-hop fans around the globe mourned the loss of such an important contributor to its cultural foundation. Not only did ATCQ revolutionize hip-hop music by introducing a jazzy, melodic style that gave artists permission to explore rap music beyond the boom bap, Phife was one of the first artists to strengthen the connection between New York City’s hip-hop birth to its West Indian heritage ( as heard in "Solid Wall of Sound" and "The Donald"). Phife Dawg was a game-changer, and as I cried and mourned the loss, I couldn’t help but think, “What if we’d gotten one more album from the whole group?”
At first listen, I paused a few times, unsure if what I was hearing was truly going to be the last project from any iteration of ATCQ, as they’ve suggested, or if there was more to come. When I listened to it as a last work, I admit I was a bit underwhelmed in the sense that I didn’t want this to be it; Jarobi didn’t formally appear on previous records, for example, and I selfishly didn’t want this to be the last time we would hear him with the group.
Politically, the album is perfectly timed. It opens with “The Space Program,” a rather sardonic reflection on Derrick Bell’s “Space Traders,” a vignette in which aliens come to Earth and offer gold, clean fuel, and reparation of the rapid environmental decay in exchange for every Black American. There is debate about the humanity of it and whether or not Black people would suffer more than everyone else would benefit, but the ultimate decision is to send Black people away.
In the song, Jarobi laments, “They planning for our future/None of our people are involved” and Tip quips, “There ain’t no space program for niggas. Yo, you stuck here, nigga,” reminding us that no such whimsical escape option exists for Black people. Phife implores us to “get it together” for brother, for sisters, for mothers and fathers, all of us during the “mass unblackening” Jarobi asserts is happening. I recognized the reference immediately and it reminded me of the group’s ability to masterfully sample, interpolate, and/or respond to long-respected artwork over the span of their career.
“The Space Program” is a much-needed reality check that segues into the album’s highlight, “We The People,” a cautionary tale during which Q-Tip accurately lays bare the sentiments of the current right-winged movement:
“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”
Phife’s justified anger on the charged “Conrad Tokyo” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) resonates; “As if this country ain’t already ruined,” Phife snarks, reminding us that this country has never truly been a safe place for us. We’re left wondering if there is any hope or if the group can offer up something that convinces us it won’t be all bad.
In fact, “Whateva Will Be,” a two-stepping trip down melancholy lane, chalks everything up to the game and suggests we work life out as best we can.
There is a clear torch-passing, which does reiterate the finality of the album. “Dis Generation,” which features Andre 3000 of Outkast, is an ode to the newest generation of artists who are primed to carry on the legacy of ATCQ (features from Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak punctuate this point). In an intergenerational conversation, laced with a perfect sample of Musical Youth’s “Pass The Duchie,” praise of the next wave’s creativity is doled out a dose of caution against selling out and forgetting their roots.
“Mobius” features the bombastic style of ole skool Busta Rhymes that, while exciting, doesn’t quite fit the more laid back vibe of the project. Still, he reminds people of his own iconic legacy and I’m not sure it would be a complete album without a nostalgic appearance from Bussa Bus.
I struggled with the lack of the former cozy cohesion between group members; only about a quarter of the songs feature all of the primary vocalists together. The tension is palpable, and it’s no secret that Tip and Phife had personal beef that extended several years. After appearing on the Jimmy Fallon show in fall of 2015, however, the group finally decided to jump into making the album that Phife had been suggesting they do for some time. Interestingly enough, Q-Tip appears on all but one song, more than any other member. He is also responsible for almost all of the production, as usual, which makes the album feel more like a remix of his third solo project, Kamaal/The Abstract, featuring his long-time best buddies. Whether it was the long-term physical disconnect (Phife lived on the West Coast, the others on the East), unresolved interpersonal tension, or health limitations (regarding making the album, Jarobi noted that Phife was happy to “go out like this”), it’s clear that time away isn’t the only thing that has changed the group.
As everything must come to an end, it appears this is it for my favorite hip-hop group. I appreciate them giving us a chance to say goodbye to Phife on “Lost Somebody.” I’m glad Jarobi got to show the world what many of us knew firsthand—he can truly spit fire (“Moving Backwards”). I feel a weight lifted knowing that Maalik and Kamaal healed themselves before the former transitioned (“Black Spasmodic”). I will forever be indebted to them for giving this native Queens girl a pathway to access the music that made the most sense to me. And for all of the years of influencing and shaping artists who lay tracks for the soulful B-Side of hip-hop’s Golden Age Soundtrack, we thank YOU, Tribe.
We got it from here...