Politics, Death, and Friendship Converge In A Tribe Called Quest’s Latest Album

Q-Tip admits he isn’t sure what the title, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service means. Phife Dawg came up with it before he died. Whatever the initial intention, it’s taken on a different meaning now, Phife’s service having come to an end, Tribe having carried on and finished the album without him.

Phife hangs like a fog over the end-product, his presence and absence equally felt. But We got it from Here isn’t his obituary. In fact, the group hardly looks back at all: with the exception of “Lost Somebody” — a moving, vulnerable tribute from Phife’s heartbroken friends — Tribe turns its attention to the present, providing sharp political and social commentary on a nation reckoning with its some of its ugliest demons.

Smart, wry, at times colored with rage, grief, and exhaustion, the album is a reflection of its context. This election season unearthed a nasty current of racism in America and Donald Trump’s victory for many legitimized it. We got it from Here is a response to that current, but a response from a group who has fought against it before, who has been fighting against it for decades. They understand that the battle against injustice won’t be won in a stanza and so consistently temper flares of emotional intensity with optimism and biting humor.

“Space Program,” the album’s first track, is a microcosm of that approach, and broadly a thesis for the album. It’s chorus, “There ain’t a space program for niggas/ you stuck here nigga” is a clever analogy for a rising tide of progress in America that doesn’t raise all boats, but it’s the song’s open that sticks. Over a light, almost cheerful electric piano, Tip and Phife rap together for the first time in 18 album-less years, again and again calling on us to “get it together.” The fun is contagious, the hope necessary.

Fun and frustration weave together We got it from Here because it took a combination of the two to nudge Tip, Phife, Jarobi, and Ali back into the studio: A reunion on the Tonight Show after so many years wet their palettes for a return and a tumultuous election gave them fodder for an album. Donald Trump, particularly, becomes a fixture at times, like on “We the People….,” where sinister, driving synths and looping drumbeats lay an angry foundation for a chorus demanding all “black folks,” “Mexicans,” “poor,” “Muslims[,] and gays…must go.”

They thread Trump’s candidacy between a complicated webbing of emotions and problems. The joy of reunion collides shakily with the grief of Phife’s death and a rocky political landscape must be navigated through the resulting emotional storm. Many of the album’s high points peak grainily, like old home videos painted with the smiles of a loved one gone too soon. The album’s last song, “The Donald” refers not to Trump, but to Phife (also called Don Juice), but it isn’t coincidence to release a song with that title three days after Trump’s election. Comparisons are drawn, just subtly, and Tribe’s focus remains tightly on the moments, people, and emotions that matter to them.

That means not saturating a political message. This is Tribe’s final album — they’re careful to balance a condemnation of the times with a celebration of their career and it’s ending. A host of music’s biggest names offer assists to cap it off (to the frenzied delight of the world’s hip-hop heads): Syd Tha Kyd, Anderson Paak, Jack White, Talib Kweli, Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000. Fellow Tribesmen Busta Rhymes and Consequence tag along for several songs, Busta trading bars with Tip and Phife over a spacey, booming “Benny and the Jets” sample on “Solid Wall of Sound”; Cons lending the chorus on the reggae groove, “Black Spasmodic.”

But of all these songs that ooze cool or tackle the world’s problems with wit and poise, a different track stands out to me as representative of the album, a simpler one plucked from the middle of the thicket. “Enough” is a song about the tradeoff between love and work. It sounds like a sunset, patient and calming. In it, Jarobi and Q-Tip ask an unanswerable question: “Is this enough?” Is the work they’ve released enough? Is the message they’ve labored to communicate enough? Was Phife’s time here enough?

They — and we — don’t know. But after an iconic career, after the death of their friend and founder, after a remarkable final album that serves as a worthy, somehow forward-looking testament to both, I think it’s safe to say Phife would be proud.

-Champe Barton

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