WORDS: TRE JOHNSON
Recently, video game publisher Squaresoft released Final Fantasy XV, the latest RPG (role-playing game) entry in the decades-spanning franchise that took nearly 10 years to make. When an announcement was finally made about its release about a year ago, the byline on the PR hype promised something that felt incongruous: a refined but familiar game experience.
When it released late last month, the reviews and the game seemed in cahoots to reinforce the importance on comfort and ambition. Reviews praised the game for moving forward while still offering a familiar experience. Squaresoft seemed to be in on this incongruous conceit too as every time you turn on Final Fantasy XV, you’re greeted with a reassuring message to longtime fans and new ones “A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”.
This reassuring message of nostalgic ambition aimed both at an aging gaming population and an upstart new one perhaps finding FFV for the first time is the same space that A Tribe Called Quest’s surprising final album We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. As a 30-year old hip-hop act, ATCQ is often cited as one of the key architects of the backpack and “social consciousness” movement in the genre, offering, along with acts like De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers (collectively known as “The Native Tongues”) a jazz-infused, Afrocentric/bohemian sound that ran counter to the rap acts that dominated the scene during the 1980s and early 90s. After their own years-long hiatus (their last album, Love Movement, came out in 1998), We Got It… arrives in a black sonic landscape caught in the midst of a burgeoning woke, activist renaissance from an array of mainstream artists, something else has been afoot too: the re-emergence of old-school acts.
We Got It tries to balance being both; long-time fans will recognize lots of implicit and explicit ATCQ call-backs in the album, creating an album of Easter egg experiences that rewards long-time listeners more deeply than ears new to the Tribe. Songs like “Ego” has the same hook-like chant feeling of “Da Booty” from The Love Movement, while other moments, like “Enough” hybrid throwbacks to both the instrumental twangs of “Bonita Applebum” while feeling like the latest entry in the gender and sexual relationships dialogue they crafted with songs like “Electronic Relaxation”, and “Like It Like That”. In an almost winking gesture, “Moving Backwards”, located in the second half of We Got It…plays in the same sentiment, dropping lines like “pushing it along” and “footprints”, echoes of People’s Instinctive Travels. But what feels fresh is also what feels familiar, and uncharacteristically angry.
“There ain’t a space program for niggas/yeah you stuck here nigga”–the hook in the opening track “Space Program” makes good on this anger. It’s an angry, sneering line that doubles as a rallying call to action and unity. ACTQ raps over a persistent, mournful beat that while the elite continue to mine new territories and destinations, the rest of us–poor people, black people, marginalized people–are being left behind as an elitist ark raptures everyone else to a better destination. “Molotov the spaceship doors before that bitch is taking off” they cry on the track, while simultaneously reminding us that there’s no space program, no exit strategy, no Obama check waiting to save us because society doesn’t care for us. It’s an angry, but self-empowering track to open too, reminding people on the ground about the everyday disruption you can do; citing Bree Newsome’s North Carolina flagpole climb to take down the Confederate flag; earth-bound activism call to creating a greater purpose for all of us through everyday action. Like they chant over and over again Let’s make something happen. It’s an important and timely reminder reinforced by the next song, “We the People” that touches on placement and displacement of black people, Muslims, gay people and immigrants. “All of you black folks, you must go/all of you Mexicans, you must go/all you poor fucks, you must go”.
We Got IT…rages over a disconnected society; in “Whateva Will Be”, Phife points a finger at today’s ear and ATCQ’s socially conscious content: “Yo should I be trapped in the trap? Would you prefer that?” and then levels at America’s consumption of black stories as entertainment: “Are you amused by our struggles? The English that’s broken?/The weed that I’m smokin’? The guns that I’m totin’?/The drugs that I’m sellin’? No need for improvement/Fuck you and who you think I should be, forward movement”. It’s that last declaration punctuating the bars–”forward movement”–that feels defiant and pro-black in a group that was likely seen as more conversational and affable in their approach to race discourse
But the pain bleeds through again on “Killing Season”; an angry track two-and-a-half minute track stuffed with Talib Kweli and Kanye on backing vocals. It’s searing, covering everything from the McKinney, Texas pool party, racism at Denny’s, continued denied justice and an open, cynical musing: “things haven’t really changed/or they’re dormant at the moment”
“Kids” meanwhile, with verses from Andre 3000, could be the backdrop for trailers for “Fences”; an entreaty for youth to separate fact from fantasy and appreciate the entitlements they’re given to be reckless, arrogant–but looping back to it being a cycle of mistakes their own parents have lived out and the unglamorous reality of hustling.
These are great tracks that feel fresh because they speak to the current times where America, pre- and post-Donald Trumps’ election, has proven inhospitable to so many marginalized groups. Now though these conversations take a heightened urgency given the emergence of an administration hell-bent on making these fears not only more legitimate but actual policy. And while it would be easy to see these lines as ATCQs own response to the administration in an a Hamilton-style reminder to the morality of today’s powers-that-be, the other conversation We Got It should still sit in the lap of a likely white, affluent liberal fan-base likely blasting these tracks from the comfort of their own gentrified home. It’s likely a conversation that will go over the heads of some of its listeners, but it’s still something that haunts the album; the notion that many of us have played a part in where we find ourselves today.
Yet there’s something else that haunts the album too, and that’s the mournful presence of Phife Dawg, the deceased group member that loops in and out of the album tracks. We Got It is lovingly crafted in a way that Phife is never left behind; his voice appearing on tracks both early and late in the album. That sort of harmonious wordplay between him, Q-Tip and Jerobi feels like the best of getting the band back together, and when he exits the album, it’s hard not to be aware of it. Phife was the plucky underdog of the group; a man without the front-man magnetism and physical prowess that gave Q-Tip such a powerful following and fawning. He was instead the piston driving the heart and energy of the group; breathing a unique life into every Tribe song as though his life depended on it. There aren’t spots in We Got It that feels like Phife showcases that their older albums have; you won’t find the journal-like moments of “8 Million Stories”, “Busta’s Lament” or “Baby Phife’s Return” but there is an incredibly poignant and beautiful track towards the end.
“Lost Somebody”, the band’s ode to the departed member, has Tip and Jerobi offering their eulogies to Phife before they both gracefully bow-out of the song about halfway through, transitioning first to Katia Cadet’s soothing vocals and then abruptly going into quiet, opening again for a few seconds of instrumental riffs that takes us from here to an afterlife. “Moving Backwards” is the next track, opening with the line “I hope my legendary style of rap lives on” which feels both personal to Tribe and to this inflection point for hip-hop.
As the current closes on Tribe, hip-hop finds itself at a pensive moment. Nostalgia stations spinning “old school” R&B has had a sizable, though ephemeral, demand in the community. With it has come the resurgence of acts that dominated the 90s and early 00s. Before We Got It, De La Soul released and the Anonymous Nobody…the group’s ninth studio album, and one that was funded through a Kickstarter campaign that was likely fueled by a listener base that most closely identifies with or embraces familiar acts that reflect the “golden days” of hip-hop and/or when the music was “done right. Yaslin Bey, formerly Mos Def, just announced a new album is coming this month too, and a few other bygone era acts are stepping up to the mic again too.
These are great bits of fan service to an aging but profitable fan base of hip-hop heads that no longer see themselves in today’s arena of Drakes, Tygas and Pandas. A cynic’s take on We Got It reinforces this idea; the album digs its heels in on distilling a rather specific era of the music, which means that while brilliant, the album can also sound almost re-mastered because it dances with being on the outside of today’s sound. This is also reflective in the series of guest appearances that range from Busta (44), Andre 3k (41), Talib (41) for a group whose remaining members are all hovering in their mid-40s, making the contributions of Kendrick (29) and Kanye (39) almost feel downright youthful.
As Tribe definitively turns out the lights, an existential conversation unintentionally pushes itself to the fore as the group’s rap contemporaries and their fans consider an exit from the contemporary mainstream in a manner similar to the identity lines arguments we’ve seen in international and domestic politics. Fans who bemoan this transition and include Tribe in it engage in the same glossing over of history to some degree, forgetting that for a good chunk of time, ATCQ was routinely dismissed for awhile as being not real rap/hip-hop, too. Their album titles have always had implicit transition and placement in them: …Instinctive Travels, Low End, Marauders, Love Movement with even this final album sounding like a polite, tongue-in-cheek grab to reclaim their fans and perhaps win some converts over one last time.
That the industry doesn’t regularly produce hip-hop like this anymore isn’t just an issue of taste; it’s a vie for visibility and mortality that comes with an aging fan-base desperate for someone to make hip-hop great again. We Got It From Here seems aware of this too; on ”Movin Backwards”, one of the closing tracks, Jarobi closes that loop for long-time fans and first-time listeners with a familiar call-back: “I hope my legendary style of rap lives on….Pushing shit along”.