A Tribe Called Quest released their first album in almost 20 years, four days after the presidential election. We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service expresses a chilling paranoia regarding the state of the Western world. MC and producer Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, newly reunited Jarobi, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, started sessions for the new album on the day of the Paris attacks in 2015 and finished earlier this year as political tensions boiled over in the U.S. From the start of Phife Dawg’s hook on opener “The Space Program,” stating “Gotta get it together forever,” the album’s urgency is established.
On the first disc, little time goes by between political admonishments and dire meditations concerning life in a racist, racialized America. Unlike past Tribe albums, that held most of the group’s political opinions under the surface of their off-kilter jazz beats and playful subject matter, We Got It from Here tackles issues of societal injustice from mass incarceration to gentrification with heated confidence. On the sneering “We the People,” Q-Tip expresses his discontent with the xenophobic sentiment ever-present in America, snidely mimicking the rhetoric that chants, “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go.” While many laughed at Trump’s antics earlier in his campaign, on “Conrad Tokyo” Phife reminds us that “CNN and all this shit, gwaan yo / move with the fuckery / Trump and SNL hilarity / troublesome times kid, no time for comedy.” The album’s sonic palette mirrors the frenzied immediacy that its lyrics suggest, as loud, loose drum beats anchor songs littered with bizarre movie samples, blaring sirens, and unpredictable guitar solos (courtesy of Jack White). Even the bright voice of Elton John on “Solid Wall of Sound” feels extraordinarily distorted, echoing with reverb and obscured by abnormal DJ scratches.
Much of the album’s second disc represents both a eulogy and a celebration of Phife Dawg, the five-foot assassin. Hailing his prophetic voice, Tip and Jarobi trade bars that start to meld into a unified celebration and remembrance of Phife Dawg’s confident black existence. Tip speaks of Phife’s spirit urging him to “speak of the legacy for short people around the world / Napoleonic, bionic people who cause the world to twirl” on “Black Spasmodic,” while Jarobi opens his verse on “Lost Somebody” simply admitting “never thought that I would be ever writing this song.” And yet the record does not betray its political foundation as it becomes more sentimental, as Anderson .Paak and Q-Tip recall insistences of police brutality on “Movin Backwards,” and Jarobi questions whether his “only crime is having melanin” on “The Killing Season.” On these later songs, the distorted voices and brash drums start to mesh with idyllic piano riffs and ’90s-influenced vocal samples, bridging the gap between the jazzy qualities of older Tribe and the forceful, chaotic beats of the first disc.
It’s clear that the rise of Trump, according to Jarobi, along with other tumultuous incidents of 2016, from the Orlando and Dallas shootings to the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, catalyzed this somewhat reluctant reunion (the group broke up in 1998 on unfriendly terms). Thus, each song feels carefully crafted and crucially contemporary. Phife Dawg’s bars on “The Space Program” and “Conrad Tokyo” feel prescient in the context of a President Trump, as if Malik knew the results far before any of the pundits. We Got it from Here reflects a biting reality of our political and social polarization. As white intellectuals across the country were shocked with the results of the Nov. 8 election, many people of color, Tribe’s members included, acknowledge Trump as a logical conclusion of a racist, intolerant nation. Phife’s words are all the more poignant considering his death in March.
Nevertheless, the album concludes by transcending any particular political statement, instead opting to portray both the beauty of American artistry and the great ugliness of American institutions. Indeed, how else could the We Got It from Here conclude with “The Donald,” perhaps the most playful, positive track of the entire album, led by Busta Rhymes’ regal, empowering hook proclaiming Phife Dawg’s greatness. Although the song clearly works as a candid reference to our President-elect, its main interest is in Don Juice, also known as Phife Dawg, also known as Malik Taylor.
Three days after the election, Tribe performed on “Saturday Night Live” alongside guest star Dave Chappelle, both for the first time ever. In 2006, Chappelle ended “Chappelle’s Show” at the height of its popularity, exasperated with a conniving TV network, a circle of friends he couldn’t trust, and the expansive white audience the show was amassing, for seemingly all the wrong reasons. Alongside Chappelle’s return, Q-Tip approaches the camera during Tribe’s second performance of the night, asking the audience if we’re stuck in our inaction, or if we can make it to the stars. Both Tribe and Chappelle, black performers widely successful in White America, seem to agree that action needs to be taken in America, now more than ever. Closing out the show, Chappelle acknowledges how important it was that Tribe joined him in returning to the spotlight that Saturday. I suppose We Got It from Here asks us to join in on their action, and “get it together forever,” regardless of what that will precisely entail.
Nick Byers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @bybybyers.