Death and tragedy invoke strong reactions in people. For some, the natural reaction is to close the world out and focus inwards whilst others crave the rigors of normalcy to distract them from their grief. When their 2015 reunion on The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon coincided with the Bataclan terror attacks, a fractured Tribe Called Quest responded by entering the studio for the first time in nearly twenty years to mend bridges once thought to be irrevocably burned.
Spurred by the declining health of their self-proclaimed “funky diabetic” Phife Dawg, the hip-hop pioneers toiled away on their final studio album, still a secret to the world outside of their New Jersey studio. Along the way, a lot happened: race relations in the United States took a nosedive, the most bruising election campaign concluded with the most shocking result and, most resonantly, the five-foot assassin Phife Dawg passed away before the final Tribe Called Quest album was announced, let alone released to the world.
In wake of the death, tragedy and adversity surrounding We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, it should be unsurprising that the last release from A Tribe Called Quest is their most bleak. Whereas past releases emanated the warmth and positivity of the Native Tongues movement, We Got It From Here opens with frosty poise, focus and a call to arms. Opening track The Space Program decries gentrification, while We The People… cuts a chilling chorus that not-so-subtly satirises Donald Trump with enough poison to wilt a rainforest. The anger bubbles through the album and boils over on the Kendrick Lamar-featuring Conrad Tokyo, in which Phife calls out Trump by name and shakes his head “As if this country ain’t already ruined”. Decades since their idealistic breezy songs came to define a movement, A Tribe Called Quest return hardened, grinding their cynicism through We Got It From Here with heavy bars and chunkier production.
The evolution of A Tribe Called Quest during their long split isn’t just evident in the subject content, the band’s musical style is remarkably more bold. Tribe made such an impression upon debut because they reimagined what hip-hop could be, but they developed a tendency to pivot back to familiarity which dimmed their later releases Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement. We Got It From Here subverts the trend, reinventing the Tribe Called Quest sound from the ground up in the group’s biggest sonic departure of all their releases. The lo-fi bass of The Low End Theory is only shows up sparingly and Q-Tip’s sample-laden beats he produced in The Ummah with J. Dilla has been scaled back as he returns to operating as the sole producer.
The album is coated with a spacey glow not dissimilar to the Beastie Boys’ 2011 Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, another successful one-off return from a long hiatus. Just as I Left My Wallet in El Segundo bottled the spirit of the Beasties’ Paul Revere, We Got It From Here distills the experimental warps and filters of Hot Sauce Committee into something more accessible and melodic. Although the album dabbles in distortion, it’s still as rhythmically engaging as any Tribe release and manages to seamlessly feel both modern and faithful in a way the talented Beastie Boys couldn’t quite achieve.
Dis Generation is a clear standout, a track that would pass as a cut from Tribe’s creative peak if not for Phife’s incessant, surreal name-dropping of modern sports names like John Wall and Todd Bowles. On the song, Tribe and their old friend Busta Rhymes bob and weave through a bouncy guitar lick as they jump in and out of the circle with blistering rhymes like an old school cypher. It’s a touching last stand from the legendary group as Q-Tip passes the torch to the new guard, name-checking Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Joey Bada$$ and J. Cole to be the “new gatekeepers of flow”.
Along with Dis Generation, there are a handful of tracks on We Got It From Here set aside for the veterans to dabble in rapping for the sake of rapping just to show they still have it. Kids… harkens back to the Tribe of yesteryear, teaming with Andre 3000 in a blazing reminder of their collective story-telling ability whilst Consequence shows up to help cover the void where his elder cousin Phife Dawg had unfinished verses. Busta Rhymes appears prominently with a new lease on life, twenty-five years since his star-making verse on Scenario.The rest of the album’s guest-list reads like a festival promoter’s dream bill: Elton John, Kanye West, Jack White, Marsha Ambrosius, Talib Kweli and Anderson .Paak, who all show up to keep the album vivid and fresh.
At first, the names read like a random assortment but it all becomes clear as Jack White shreds his guitar like it’s the last solo he’ll ever play at the end of Lost Somebody; it’s an important and personal album for all of the artists. Importantly, as politicised as the album is, We Got It From Here remains first and foremost a tribute to Phife Dawg.
Take note of all the strategic choices: a last-minute change of the album cover from a naked selfie to a hand-drawn person to quickly de-politicise the face of the project, whilst the album closer The Donald is a song about ‘Don Juice’, a nickname for Phife, rather than the President-elect. It’s apparent that Tribe want their message to be impactful, but their politics fittingly sits secondary to an appropriate remembrance of the charismatic Phife Dawg.
We Got It From Here may have been an album that was ignited by the political climate, but it was finished as a loving farewell to Tribe and their late friend. Tribe didn’t need another album to be remembered as one of the greatest bands of all-time, but with We Got It From Here they’ve made sure they won’t be forgotten.