THERE WERE PRECIOUS FEW GLIMMERS of hope in Michael Rapaport’s 2011 A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life, as they bickered their way through a stadium tour, ostensibly to defray medical costs for self-proclaimed ‘sugar addict’ Phife Dawg’s losing struggle with diabetes. The film’s surprise reveal was that the trio still had one album left in their contract. In 2015 they decided to honour that contract alongside diplomatic go-betweens Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. By the time of the diminutive Dawg’s sudden death in March 2016 he had completed nine vocal tracks.
Starved fans will breathe a huge sigh of relief at bubbly opener The Space Program, a roiling rhyme fest over a simple organ lick as Phife, Q-Tip and Jarobi relish every rat-tat-tat exchange. The same powerful esprit de corps glows from Whatever Will Be’s old fashioned cypher, rendered over a chubby loop of The Nairobi Sisters’ 1975 dub Promised Land. While a welcome political dimension emerges as Q-Tip takes a prescient pop at Trump’s possible immigration policy on the doomy We The People: “All you black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go… Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/So all you bad folks, you must go…”
It’s not all perfect. You could rightly question whether the Q-Tip/André 3000 duet Kids… has any place on a ATCQ album. Or whether a glut of guest spots including Elton John, Jack White and Kendrick Lamar are strictly necessary. Yet ultimately it’s the original, immersive Tribe vibes that conquer all. If it’s tinged with numbing sadness on Lost Somebody, the ludicrous Jamaican bounce and bumptious Busta Rhymes interpolation of The Donald is a fittingly off-the-wall last salute to the Five Foot Assassin.
Read a longer version of this review in MOJO 279.
Watch A Tribe Called Quest perform We The People… on Saturday Night Live