Three days after the 2016 presidential election, as if on cue, A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in nearly 20 years. Despite the obstacles of age, death, and the evolved sound of hip-hop, ATCQ boldly re-entered the music world without skipping a beat. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is a 16-track return to form which proves that the forty-somethings still have rhythm, and that socially conscious hip-hop is alive and well.
High school classmates Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad formed A Tribe Called Quest in 1985, and released their debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm in 1990 to critical praise but saw little mainstream success. Their following two albums, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders, with hits like “Scenario” and “Electric Relaxation,” ushered ATCQ onto the popular stage, and solidified their standing among the hip-hop greats. Their mellow, laid-back atmosphere and use of jazz elements in their beats created a groove and feel that would contribute to the foundation of hip-hop music as a whole. The Tribe’s signature warm, organic sound, as well as their slick, socially conscious call-and-response lyrics are certainly present in this latest record, as are the Tribe’s frequent collaborators. Jarobi White, Busta Rhymes, and Consequence all appear weaved into verses and choruses, sharp as ever, and even Phife Dawg, one of the group’s core members who died from complications with type 2 diabetes last March, contributes verses from the grave. But the features don’t stop there — this album assembled a cast of musical talent from the past and present, from Kendrick Lamar to Jack White to Sir Elton John.
We Got It from Here is the Tribe’s most politically driven project to date. Its timely arrival might lead people to believe it was a direct response to the election of Donald Trump — the final track is even called “The Donald.” However, it’s been in production for years, and the closing number is a tribute to Phife, whose lesser-known nickname is “Don Juice.” Besides, writing this project off as simply another protest against Trump, (a category of media that seems to be growing every day), would ignore its true purpose: a sober criticism of broad social and political trends, and a call to action to incite change in society. “We the People….” is the second track and the only single on We Got It from Here, and has probably received the majority of the album’s attention, as it was performed on The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and the 59th Grammy Awards Show. Its title channels the spirit of preamble to the US Constitution, and its lyrics deal with police brutality and the bigotry faced by minorities in America. The chorus sarcastically repeats,
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
The song’s beat is markedly darker and colder than what one might expect to find on a Tribe album — it’s a drum track with deep, droning synths and a police siren in the background. The difference in production makes it clear that this isn’t some chill-out, jazzy number from the old days. It’s overt, to the point, and invokes the fear and danger that oppressed people (Black folks, Mexicans, poor folks, Muslims, and gays) are forced to live with.
The pointed political overtones in “We the People….” are clear, and the problems it highlights (racism, xenophobia, gender inequality) remain glaring deficiencies in society deserving of attention and improvement. However, they seem to be go-to topics for socially conscious art, which makes the album’s first track, “The Space Program,” all the more impressive. It deals with less talked-about trends that stem from discrimination: the interconnection of poverty and race, and how gentrification and the media exacerbate that link. The lyrics of “The Space Program” follow an extended metaphor — “there ain’t a space program for niggas, yeah you stuck here.” It likens comfortable living to space and details how the privileged, ruling class effectively ignores black people living in impoverished communities. When neighborhoods develop and are made more attractive and expensive (launched into space), the poor people living there can no longer afford to stay in their own neighborhood and are forced out with nowhere to go. Q-Tip attributes this “mass un-blackening” to discrimination, expressing that the powers that be would “rather see [black people] in a three-by-three structure with bars.” What’s also important to note is the Tribe’s perception of the media and its impact. Q-Tip raps about images of Mars and space vessels: “Put it on TV, put it in movies, put it in our face / These notions and ideas.” The idea of Tthe American dream is shoved into the faces of poor people — that the country is a meritocracy and that if you work hard, you can make it. Clearly, that’s never been true for poor black people, and spreading this promise through media, making people believe it and eventually letting them down, only exacerbates systemic inequality by preventing change. And change is exactly what the Tribe calls for in “The Space Program:” “It’s time to go left and not right… let’s make something happen.”
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service will likely be ATCQ’s last album, given their age and the death of Phife Dawg, so listen to it, buy it, stream it, enjoy it. The Tribe has a gift for articulating the problems faced by the poor and oppressed, and this record is a perfect example.