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Social Consciousness And Racial Inequality Are Front And Center On A Tribe Called Quest’s Surprise Comeback Album [Review]

I grew up around hip-hop, although peripherally. My family is (partially) quite comfortable because of my father’s role in the development of hip hop in the 80s and 90s, as he was the co-founder of Profile Records, home to artists such as Run DMCRob Base and DJ E-Z RockDJ QuikDr. Jekyl & Mr. HydeCamp Lo and many others. As such, I felt a closeness to hip-hop, but in reality it took me many years to understand it, let alone to find the truest artists of the genre. I went through my Eminem phase, my Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg phase, and of course, who could forget my G-Unit phase. It wasn’t until I discovered the neo-soul movement of The RootsTalib KweliMos Def, and Common that I truly understood the power of what hip-hop could be. All of these artists discuss real issues on their records, bringing an almost sociological approach to their music, often creating true poetry while discussing the injustices of the world around them. None of these artists would exist without the earth-shattering influence of A Tribe Called Quest.

ATCQ pioneered socially conscious hip-hop by just being themselves. They weren’t militant, they weren’t mean, they weren’t aggressive; in actuality, they represented African-American intellectualism. Their portrayal of the African American experience is connected with many who were searching for an alternative to the ultra-left militance of Public Enemy and the ultra-angry violence of N.W.A. Not to knock those groups–who affected change and pushed the conversation incredibly in their own right–but ATCQ spoke to a certain type of person, and they rode that wave, paving the path for so many other socially conscious thinkers who were looking for an outlet. Unfortunately, the group broke up in 1999 due to issues with their record label, and have been mostly dormant since then.

Thankfully, after an eighteen-year lay-off, A Tribe Called Quest have returned. Following the tragic death of founding member Phife Dawg in March, group leader Q-Tip got together with the remaining members of the group and decided to move forward with the release of one final album, containing many tracks that he and Phife had been working on in secret for a potential comeback album. Q-Tip brought back Jarobi White, as well as Busta Rhymes and Consequence, alongside an amazing collection of special guests such as Kendrick LamarAnderson .PaakAndre 3000Talib Kweli, Sir Elton John and Jack White, and the result is one of the most important hip-hop albums in years, up there with Lamar’s instant-classic To Pimp A ButterlyWe got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service is a master-class in socially conscious conversation and a continuation of Tribe’s spotlight of the African-American experience in this country.

This album is filled with musical nostalgia. The members of ATCQ trade verses with ease, flowing in and out of each-others rhymes with perfection. Hip-hop simply doesn’t sound like this anymore, and it’s certainly refreshing to hear this throwback to an older era. The beats on the record are decidedly focused on live instrumentation, with lots of live-sounding bass, guitar, and piano parts creating a grooving vibe that permeates throughout the album. We got it from Here…also includes some fun samples, with Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” heavily sampled on “Solid Wall of Sound”. The classic children’s film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is also sampled at the end of the album’s opening track, “The Space Program”. In an out-of-left-field collaboration, Jack White pops up on two tracks on the album, adding his trademark guitar playing to “Lost Somebody” and “Ego”

The message of the record, however, is clear. ATCQ continue their discussion of the negativity of the African-Americans experience in this country. The album opens with “The Space Program”, which contains an unmistakable discussion of racial inequality. Honestly, the song’s lyrics explain the message more than my words ever could:

Imagine for a second all the people are colored, please
Imagine for a second all the people in poverty
No matter the skin tone, culture or time zone
Think the ones who got it would even think to throw you a bone?
Moved you out your neighbourhood, did they find you a home?
Not safer, probly no place to

The song’s chorus is also an unmistakeable message to African-Americans around the country.

Tryna go left and not right
Gotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters
For mothers and fathers and dead niggas
For non-conformers, won’t hear the quitters
For Tyson types and Che figures
Let’s make somethin’ happen, let’s make somethin’ happen
Let’s make somethin’ happen, let’s make somethin’ happen

A powerful opening statement from a group that hasn’t released music since 1998. A Tribe Called Quest come back and immediately push for progressive and thoughtful togetherness. This message serves as a mission statement, with the rest of the record pushing this theme.

On track two, “We The People”, the message is made even more clear, right from the song’s opening lines.

We don’t believe you ’cause we the people
I’ll still be in the rear, yo, we don’t need you
You ain’t a killer nor good, young nigga, move
When we get hungry we eat the same fucking food

It is almost unfathomable that, in 2016, we are still talking about inequality in this way. It’s crazy to think that things have gotten worse since the group’s debut in 1990. Missing from these opening tracks is the typical humor from ATCQ’s previous records. This album has no “Buggin’ Out”, or “Award Tour”, or “Jazz (We Got)”. It is filled with introspective and honest conversation about racial inequality that we need to be having as a country. With death and injustice the main themes of the album, there seems to be no room for jokes on this record. The opening tracks reflect an anger and disbelief in the current climate in this country. “We The People” has an unmistakable message, and once again I’ll let the song’s chorus deliver what my words could never provide.

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

The rest of the album is, thematically, more of the same. I don’t think it’s a surprise that ACTQ chose to release this album two days after the divisive presidential election, especially considering the candidacy of Donald Trump, the most racially divisive politician of our modern era.

The album is filled with this kind of messaging. “Whateva Will Be” touches on the unjust prison system in America:

So am I ‘posed to be dead or doin’ life in prison?
Just another dummy cauught up in the system
unruly hooligan who belongs in Spofford
Versus gettin’ that degree at Stanford or Harvard

“The Killing Season” discusses the perils of racial injustice and the thick skin African-Americans are forced to grow in response to the society around them:

Things haven’t really changed, been dormant for the moment
Marks and scars, we own it, only makes for tougher skin
Helps us actualize the actual greatness held within
Been on the wrong team so much, can’t recognize a win

Honestly, every track has elements of philosophical greatness and deep thought delivered from ATCQ’s standard left-of-center belief system.

Guest verses from Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson .Paak are all on-topic social commentaries as well. On “Kids”, Andre sends his “condolences to niggas that got erased, I pour out some liquor on the cops’ graves”. His delivery, flow, and message are a perfect fit for ATCQ, leading to The Roots’ drummer Questlove suggestion that the group invite him to be a full time member.

On “Conrad Tokyo”, Lamar bluntly states “Toleration for devastation, got a hunger for sin / Every nation, Obama nation, let the coroner in / Crooked faces, red and blue laces for the color of men”.

Perhaps the best guest-appearance on the album, Anderson .Paak delivers an all-too-real verse, where he states:

They wanna see my downfall
Turn a good day into a downpour
Thorns in the crown and the cross I bear
Why they wanna see me hangin’ like a towel somewhere

He continues the conversation with a second verse later in the track, proclaiming:

Moving backwards never, that was never the plan
Can I vent? I was content being my own man
Up until that night, ill faded, walking home, I was faded
Cocos races on my wrist like he was clapping his hands
How demeaning y’all, who could be blind to racism?

No review of this album would be complete without a special shout out of Phife Dawg’s contribution to the record. Clearly doubling as a tribute to their fallen brother, Phife Dawg is front and center on many of the tracks, delivering his thoughts on remaining himself, the influence of the media, and Donald Trump, all with his the lyrical expertise for which he was known throughout his career. The rest of the group touches on his death on the final track “The Donald”, with Busta Rhymes rapping:

Phife Dawg, whatagwan with the crew?
Nuff ting, that’s why me had to come through
Phife Dawg, you spit wicked every verse
The north said respect the Trini man first

Rhymes actually adopts a Trinidadian accent at several moments throughout the record, a true homage to the “Trini Gladiator” Phife Dawg.

The record is a reminder of the potential power of hip-hop, and specifically the group of thoughtful rappers that make up A Tribe Called Quest. “Who could be blind to racism?” It’s a powerful question that I’m not sure there is a simple answer to. The best thing that can be done to understand this album is to hear it with your own ears. Below, you can stream the entire record, and I encourage any fans of hip hop, social justice, or just good music to give it a listen (or two, or three).