A Tribe Called Quest juggles multitudes on their final album. “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” positions itself as a timely protest album, a glorious comeback, and a tribute to member Phife Dawg, whose untimely death in March left a gaping hole in the hip-hop culture which will never truly be filled. Like all great Tribe albums, “We Got It From Here” utilizes old-school funk and soul production and grounds it in modern subject matter. A few weeks ago, I wrote about hip-hop’s importance as a bastion of protest music, and Tribe’s philosophy of using the past to inform the future have always made them a staple of socially-conscious hip-hop. “We Got It From Here” reaffirms Tribe’s legendary status after their 18-year hiatus.
As a protest album, “We Got It From Here” stands out amongst its reactionary contemporaries. Whereas an album like Common’s “Black America Again” laments the consequences of racism — violence, police brutality, and racial discrimination — We Got It From Here seems to address its roots directly. “We the People….” indicts President-elect Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric with a chorus that echoes Trump’s sentiments: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go.”
Conversely, the album closes with “The Donald,” an uplifting eulogy for Phife Dawg (whose nickname, among many, was “Don Juice”) in celebration of both the man and his Caribbean roots, bolstered by a Jamaican Patois verse by long-time Tribe collaborator Busta Rhymes. For an album that hits as many somber notes as “We Got It From Here” does, choosing to end the album — and, by transition, A Tribe Called Quest — on a positive one leaves far more of a lasting impact. “Lost Somebody” is the mournful Phife Dawg tribute we all expected (Q-Tip’s intro: “Yeah, Phife — for your life”), but the inevitability of such a funereal reflection on this album does little to reduce its efficacy.
Perhaps most impressive about “We Got It From Here” is its production, which calls upon a rich American musical history while retaining a clear modernity. “The Space Program” lays down “Green Onions”-style organs, “Kids…” evokes Kraftwerk in its retro, minimalist synthesizers, “Mobius” recalls the boom-bap production trend that thoroughly colored ‘90s hip-hop, and in “Ego,” Jack White’s guitar creeps across the verses into soul-infused golden age choruses.
Phife Dawg was only 20 years old when Tribe’s first album “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” introduced the group to the world. Phife Dawg is only sporadically featured on the album, but it’s “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” that might best define the kind of emcee he was. “I’m gobbling, like a dog on turkey / Beef jerky, Slim Jims, I eat sometimes / I like lemons and limes / And if not that, I get the roti and the soursop / Sit back, relax, listen to some hip-hop.”
“Ham ‘n’ Eggs” is little more than a love letter to cuisine, pushed aside by some of the more bonafide classics on the album — namely “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?” — but Phife Dawg’s nonchalant flow and casual braggadocio make the song one of Tribe’s most entertaining. That winning combination carries over to We Got It From Here, and it’s why, despite all of the strong political commentary and personal woes of this album, it had to end with “The Donald.”
“We Got It From Here” is a triumphant finale for A Tribe Called Quest that displays an intense awareness of the group’s strong and distinct personalities and an unadulterated enchantment with the art of hip-hop and its predecessors. I think it’s also a project that Phife Dawg would have been immensely proud of.