A year ago, the likelihood of a new Tribe Called Quest album was the last thing on anyone’s mind. The legendary ‘90s rap crew had broken up in 1998, for over a decade they’d been vehemently insisting they’d make no more new music together, and although every now and then they’d team up for the occasional concert, the creative energy was presumed gone. Also, Phife Dawg, one of the group’s two main rappers alongside Q-Tip, died in March. In an era of surprise releases, the new We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, out since November, particularly surprises — allegedly inspired/jolted by the Paris attacks, they recorded the album in secret over the past year, and when Phife went they kept going without him. Behold their first album in eighteen years: a sprawling double, dotted with guests. Phife raps on some songs; others mourn him. The beats update their sound while retaining continuity; the lyrics lend political specificity to their characteristic conscious black humanism. Classic rap fans rejoiced when the album dropped, first, and again when the rumor surfaced that it was their best.
I’m usually wary of comeback narratives, which by definition encode their own inferiority to whatever came before and treat the previous work as quality standard. Thank You 4 Your Service is such a stunner skeptics needn’t bother. Calling it their best album feels irrelevant. It’s their biggest, longest, densest, and most knowingly devised, its two discs suspended in perfect balance. The previous two contestants to the title, 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s slightly less acclaimed Midnight Marauders, cultivated lightness, casualness, the rapid-fire conversational exchanges between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip evoking two friends relaxing and shooting the breeze. Their airy, unhurried jazzbeats glow with enough buoyant warmth to fill a room, and the willingness to serve as background music dovetails with the illusion of natural, inevitable, endless flow, as if the music were already running before the album started and would continue after it finished. Thank You 4 Your Service feels like an album as subscribers to the intentional fallacy understand the term: crafted, deliberate, a statement. Partially it’s the crunchier beats courtesy of Q-Tip (their usual DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was unavailable), shifting the previous formula’s emphasis on horn and especially bass over to variously textured keyboards and electronic effects; partially it’s the discreteness of each hook; partially it’s the widened sonic range, which demands deliberate sequencing. As for what statement they’re trying to make, imagine a communal monument to one rapper that also celebrates community in the context of political horror (they didn’t predict the election either). Phife, inevitably, becomes a symbol. So does the whole Tribe.
Previously their music foregrounded its jazziest elements, from sampled classic horn flutters to fretless double bass plucking (on The Low End Theory, they hired Ron Carter!), incorporated into a grittier analog sound marked by vinyl scratches, tape hisses and the like. On Thank You 4 Your Service, Q-Tip tweaks the style according to recently fashionable standards of scale and immersive density popularized by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Sprightly as ever, these beats form a thicker, chewier soundscape, with scratches jittering, sparks flying, cut-up groans and shrieks chiming in from everywhere, over steady drums, cunningly timed rhythm guitar, fusion keyboards layered gorgeously. “The Killing Season” threads sharply catchy keyboard warble, circling back on itself again and again, around subtler chord colors and skittering percussive clicks, propulsive in their restraint. “Ego” shivers nervously as a three-note bassline plus ominous guitar static resolve into sweet liquid horn croon and back again. “We the People” builds a furious protest song from slammed metal drums, a buzzy synthesizer hook, and police sirens (chorus: “All you black folks you must go/all you Mexicans you must go,” etc). “Dis Generation” builds a positive solidarity anthem from a cheerfully echoey guitar line and noodling bass, plus a massively intergalactic chorus whose goofy power riff, string accompaniment, and sampled reggae squeals soar into the sky (“This is our generation, generation, uh huh, yeah”). The album moves with the confidence of master craftsmen suddenly reminded of how much they love what they do; you can hear their delight to finally make music again. They earn their cheer.
Despite A Tribe Called Quest’s taste for horns, dissonance, and occasional collaborations with real jazz musicians, Q-Tip always rejected the jazz-rap label (applied by critics to ‘90s groups like Quest, Gang Starr, Digable Planets etc), because their music was mostly turntable-generated. Vocally, though, the analogy flies. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg — along with off-and-on group member Jarobi White, frequent honored guests Consequence and Busta Rhymes, and any number of one-time collaborators — these rappers rap the way many jazz musicians, especially in larger ensembles, play their instruments: fiercely, aware of everybody else’s presence, responding to and in competition with each other. They take turns, they switch off in rapid succession, they rap in unison, they interrupt each other, they mimic each other, they criticize each other, they get caught up in their shared ritual of performed communication. When only Tip and Phife are present keeping track of their volleys can be amusing, but when they invite a whole studio’s worth of friends to join them, as they do on many songs here, the group’s overwhelming size is the point. Simulated cross-dialogue must be calculated precisely; on record the effect is spontaneous, as if they’re all there, crowded around, seizing the mic from each other in stylized succession. Tip’s harsh quaver and Phife’s comic stride dominate the conversation, but the album as a whole teaches a lesson about solidarity. Rapping about solid walls of sound or their own legacy, they depict a fun gathering of friends. Rapping about Trump or the effects of racism, their gathering (symbolically) expands into a large, unified, politically active community. Rappers can too be role models.
The album doesn’t just signify politically, though: they’ve also gathered to honor Phife. On “Lost Somebody,” Tip and Jarobi tell an abbreviated version of Phife’s life story, starting with his birth and reminiscing about their days together as a group. An exquisite, upbeat, pittering piano arpeggio moves over warm rhythm guitar. The drums sputter during the chorus, sung by one honey-voiced Katia Cadet: “Have you ever lost somebody/way before you got to dream/no more crying he’s in sunshine/he’s alright now see his wings.” After both rappers have had their say, she repeats the chorus four times in a moment of uplift. During the fifth chorus she gets cut off when the music abruptly ends.