Every week, we tell you about the one album, above all others, you need to spend time with this week. This week's album is We Got it From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the first A Tribe Called Quest album in 18 years, and the last, since founding member Phife Dawg died earlier this year.
Here are the ages of the members of A Tribe Called Quest, both full- and part-time, and a few of their associates: Q-Tip, 46; Ali Saheed Muhammed, 46; Jarobi White, 45; Busta Rhymes, 44; Consequence, 39. Phife Dawg, who passed away earlier this year from complications resulting from diabetes, and to whom We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service—the first Tribe album in 18 years—is dedicated, was 45. I highlight their ages for a reason: we live in a time where the generational divide in rap seems wider than ever—or at least more sensationalized. Old heads are incensed by the new generation’s lack of reverence for their predecessors; the kids complain that they don’t get enough respect for pushing boundaries and developing their own sounds (which, it’s important to note, often take existing ones as their jumping-off points).
What’s especially striking about We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service is that it finds Tribe embracing the next generation with a remarkable generosity, and not because it serves as proof of their impact, although it certainly does do that, but because it imbues them with a sense of purpose. “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow/ They are extensions of instinctual soul,” raps Q-Tips on “Dis Generation,” understanding that each class has their own place in history and sounding invigorated by the notion of sharing what they’ve learned over the years instead of treating the youth as competition who are pushing them out of the spotlight and leaving them behind in the process. “Kids,” which features a predictably standout guest spot from André 3000, is even more explicit in this regard: appealing to experiences shared between the generations rather than finger-wagging at Those Dumb Kids prevents it from feeling pedantic. Neither Three Stacks or Q-Tip come off as out-of-touch scolds but rather kindred spirits possessing a been-there wisdom who can rap their asses off.
And rap extremely well is something all those invited to participate do. Whether it’s the patois-inflected cadences that colour “Solid Wall of Sound,” which brilliantly flips a “Benny and the Jets” sample, or the effortless back-and-forth found on “Dis Generation,” where Q-Tip, Phife, Busta, and Jarobi revel in passing the baton between each other, grateful to be on the same song again after so long. It’s a classic case of friends bringing the best out of each other, amplified by the palpable joy found in simply being in each other’s physical presence. Jarobi hasn’t had this much swing, well, perhaps ever, and he pops up throughout the album with potent little jabs, mostly notably on “Movin’ Backwards.” Consequence steals each song he appears on, and together with Busta—who also sounds more engaged here than he has been in at least a decade—the two form the kind of pairing on “Mobius” we didn’t know we needed and now can’t imagine never having the chance to hear. And for all the album’s incisive commentary, its beats and flow always make a case for themselves, the assembled crew weaving in and out of beats with the vigor of rappers half their age, the live-band production crisp and pleasantly weighty without feeling dusty (or inviting sample clearance headaches).
Of the record’s numerous recurring threads, its celebration of friendship is its most powerful. Nowhere is this exemplified than “Lose Somebody,” a touching tribute to Phife Dawg on which Q-Tip acknowledges the complex nature of interpersonal relationships: “Malik, I would treat you like little brother, that would give you fits/ Sometimes overbearing though, I thought it was for your benefit/ Despite all the spats and shits cinematically documented/ The one thing I appreciate: you and I, we never pretended/ Rhymes we would write it out, hard times fight it out/ Gave grace face to face, made it right.”
On “Movin’ Backwards,” Anderson .Paak croons the following: “Maybe the answer’s not up there, maybe it’s on the ground somewhere.” In other words: looking to the skies for help is a long wait for a train that don’t come, and it’s the people around us who can effect change. It’s hardly a novel insight, but it encapsulates the Tribe philosophy, if one could be distilled. And in an uncertain time when the chasms between groups with divergent viewpoints seem to be wider than ever before, it feels vital to hear. It’s that spirit of collaboration, and their commitment to continued resistance in the face of what feel like overwhelming odds, from which A Tribe Called Quest have always found their strength. With their final project, a group of lifelong friends from Queens, New York have put together an album-length refutation of the idea that growing older means growing more callous or more complacent or more walled off. Or, as We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service proves, any less potent.
Renato Pagnani is a writer based in Edmonton. He's written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, Fader, Edmonton Journal.