Childhood friends, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg had struggled to put their differences aside ever since the group split in 1998. And despite reforming to perform live during the mid-2000’s their relationship remained fractured. It was apparent to anyone who’d seen Michael Rapaport’s brutally honest 2011 documentary that the likelihood of any new material was fairly low. The passing of Phife in March seemed to put an end to the jazz-rap pioneers ever releasing a long-awaited sixth album. So it came as a huge surprise to everyone when the CEO of Epic Records revealed in August that Phife had secretly been working with Q-Tip, Ali and founding member Jarobi on their first album in 18 years while he was still alive.
‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’ was unfinished when Phife died, but according to Q-Tip he’d left behind the “blueprint” on how to proceed. The memory of Phife understandably looms large over the project, but they honour their comrade in the best way possible by surpassing all expectations. Their final album is simultaneously the perfect comeback and farewell. Sounding both nostalgic and fresh, it taps into the essence of their early 90’s classics, while also expanding their sonic palette to include dense layers of guitars, piano and electronics. It’s also created a record that’s absolutely necessary in the current political climate.
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Opener ‘The Space Program’ features the most Tribe-like beat on the album, with Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi setting the tone with a call for unity and hard work among the disenfranchised: “There ain’t a space program for niggas. Yeah, you stuck here.” Donald Trump’s hate-filled campaign rhetoric is more directly targeted on the impeccably timed ‘We the People…’ with its hard-hitting beat and darkly satirical hook: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go…” While Phife also goes after the media for making light of Trump on the jazzy ‘Conrad Tokyo’ featuring Kendrick Lamar: “CNN and all this shit / Go on now, move with the fuckery / Trump and SNL hilarity / Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy.“
In an ode to the new generation, Kendrick Lamar is among those hailed as the “gatekeepers of flow” on the superb ‘Dis Generation’ which finds a revitalised Busta Rhymes trading bars with his old friends. However, Q-Tip and André 3000 issue some words of caution on the less celebratory ‘Kids…’ where they warn future wannabe stars about the pitfalls of the hip hop “fantasy“. On more personal matters, Q-Tip also touches upon drug dependency and everyday anxieties on ‘Melatonin’ where he raps about how “the world is crazy and I cannot sleep” alongside Marsha Ambrosius and Abbey Smith.
The star-studded cast slot in seamlessly throughout, and there’s a feeling of togetherness that you don’t always find on records packed with this many big names. Jack White pops up on guitar in several places, including on ‘Solid Wall of Sound’ where he’s joined by Elton John who adds piano and vocals over a sample of his 1974 hit ‘Bennie and the Jets’. The old school meets the new on ‘Movin’ Backwards’ as Q-Tip and Anderson Paak share their feelings on being successful while staying true to yourself. While Kanye West even manages to slip in virtually unnoticed, showing up on the hook of ‘The Killing Season’ featuring a solid verse from Talib Kwelli. 2016 may have been described as “the worst year ever” by some but A Tribe Called Quest just made it that little bit better.