There are many narratives to A Tribe Called Quest’s new album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. It’s their first album since fall 1998’s The Love Movement (creative differences and outsized ego caused the ATCQ’s lengthy sabbatical). It’s also their final offering. Five months after reuniting in November 2015 to begin recording, rapper Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor died from diabetes complications. Though Phife recorded several key verses for the effort before passing in March, the loss left a hole so massive in the group that Tribe — now comprised of producer and rapper Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White — reached out to frequent collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence to pop in for the lost member. Service is both a comeback and a sendoff.
In addition to those heavy storylines, one thing is also clear: A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth album sounds startlingly current, considering the current social and political climate minorities in America are dealing with today. If it wasn’t for the note Q-Tip wrote to fans announcing service’s release, the set could have come off as a product of marathon studio sessions following Election Day (Nov. 8, three days before service hit stores) when Donald Trump became president-elect.
Rapping over jazzy chords and under Vincent Price’s maniacal laughter on the opener “The Space Program,” Jarobi raps in double-time speed about a “mass un-blackening.” “It’s happening. You feel it, y’all?,” he continues. “[They’d] rather see we in a three-by-three structure with many bars.” With President Barack Obama’s days numbered as leader of the free world, Trump’s election is considered by some to be the work of people who hope he can wash away all that the first Black Commander-in-Chief has done in his eight-year stint in the White House.
A weathered Black Sabbath sample on the galvanizing “We the People…” is the base Q-Tip rocks on while wearily singing (in the voice of a soulless government official), “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.” As he transitions to becoming the actual president, Trump is prepping plans for construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall and a registry for immigrants coming from Muslim countries. On “The Killing Season,” the topic switches to the senseless deaths of Blacks throughout America. “Been on the wrong team so much/Can’t recognize a win,” Jarobi raps. “Seems like my only crime is having melanin.”
With nearly 27 years in the rap game, another feat ATCQ accomplish is not sounding old. Coming off like the finger-wagging grandfather in the club is perhaps a hip-hop act’s biggest nightmare. Thankfully, the crew’s veteran core chips in with stellar bars and delivery.
The Queens collective achieves this by staying in tune with today while playing with the past. On “Dis Generation,” Q-Tip says his skills will have foes “shaking like Gator,” the crack-addicted character in Spike Lee’s classic 1993 film Jungle Fever (the year after Tribe dropped their debut album). But his references jump back into the 2010s: “Been trill, n—a, process the data/Blu-ray, wave file, or a Beta, I’ll DVR it for later.” When Rhymes chimes in later, he claims he’s “Bruce Leein’ n—as, while you n—as UFC.” Phife complains about the “surge pricing on these Ubers/I’mma get me a cab.”
Tip and guest, OutKast‘s Andre 3000, embrace their elder statesmen status on “Kids…” The track discusses how parents can be hypocrites and talk down to their children without giving them the “cheat code” to life, because it’d mean they’d have to admit that they’ve screwed up in ways similar to the ones they’re now guiding. Even when the pair is the oldest in the room, they’re still on cool dad mode — the OGs that only provide welcome wisdom.
“Enough!!” is the quintessential Tribe cut for the bedroom, sampling their classic “Bonita Applebum”‘s banjo-like guitar riff. Tip’s charming, tongue-in-cheek rhymes include “sex is a big part of me/Agencies want to audit me/Searching, snooping for sodomy/My thrust bust arteries.” And while today’s kids are rapping about sipping lean, the only cut featuring drug talk is “Melatonin,” where Tip talks about stress necessitating use of the sleeping aid. To that end, Thank You for your Service does no pandering.
Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak also serve as true Tribe disciples on “Conrad Tokyo” and “Movin Backwards,” respectively. Thank You also completely stays away from trap drums, today’s choice rumble. There’s no phoning it in with microwaved production either. It’s a baked job, warm with live band instrumentation meshed with 1990s boom-bap and thwack. This is hip-hop aging gracefully.
Most importantly, this album honors Phife’s The Five Foot Assassin moniker with pristine verses. The straight-shooting wordsmith goes out like a champ on “The Donald,” Service’s final song. Phife challenges all to a rap battle, clowning supposed lyricists that read from smartphone notes while in his “danger zone.” The bully-footing spitter known to have a Napoleon complex sounds as confident as ever. “F–k your ass cheek flows with bars sweeter than scones,” he raps before switching tones to his Trinidadian patois.
The Tribe’s quest is over. While it’s easy to get frustrated thinking about what might have been had they been able to talk through their differences and prevent the split, Service is an excellent parting gift, a socially charged record that perfectly connects the dots between Q-Tip’s artsy, pensive Bohemian-in-a-straw-hat vibes with Phife’s brash, down-for-whatever bro-ness as if they never left. It’s a shame that an effort so fresh won’t be continued upon (though, there are whispers of an upcoming Tribe tour and a solo Phife 2017 album). But as the title suggests, it’s probably best to appreciate it for what it is and move forward in its spirit.