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Explaining the significance of A Tribe Called Quest to rap is one of those tasks like grabbing a fistful of water or convincing people that Elvis is dead. In an arena where patricide is considered an art form, Tribe is one of the few acts whose status remains nearly unassailable. Plain and simple, Tribe is the most consistently slamming group in rap. Hiphop artists’ lifespans are generally best measured with a stopwatch, but Tribe has produced four releases in the past six years—none of which can be written off as a liability. Consider the fact that Public Enemy’s niche in the hiphop pantheon was assured by two exceptional releases, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which were followed by three mediocre ones, or that N.W.A.’s fame was the product of only two albums, Straight Outta Compton and Efil4zaggin, and Tribe starts looking like the rap equivalent of Cal Ripken Jr. (Defunct Strong Islanders EPMD might play Gehrig to Tribe’s Ripken, but that’s irrelevant, because right about now they couldn’t get a hit if they talked shit at a Riddick Bowe press conference.)
The alchemy was simple: Combine subtle, jazz-suffused tracks with solid lyricists and two of the most distinctive voices in rap, then sit back and watch the concoction turn to platinum. And beyond commercial success, the emergence of Tribe as part of the soft-toned Afrocentric collective of Native Tongues (which was formed in 1990 and included De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love) was significant because, along with the rest of the Tongues, Tribe expanded the parameters of the genre. Like the mad sci-fi verbals of the Ultramagnetics’ Kool Keith, and Afrika Bambaataa’s Afro-galactic flourishes, the Native Tongues’ abstraction and metaphors pushed the boundaries of what a rap record could be about.
Against a backdrop of polemic East Coast rap and the nascent gangsterism of the West, Native Tongues brought forth a view of the world that was decidedly more complex. De La Soul’s Three Feet High & Rising, the Jungle Brothers’ Done by the Forces of Nature, and Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm were the cornerstones of the black bohemian edge that momentarily flourished before the art form slid downhill into a sea of misogynistic gangsta bravado. And while De La Soul returned one year later, shorn of its flower-child innocence, it never recaptured the witty brilliance of Three Feet and languished in the basement of hiphop underachievement. The Jungle Brothers were casualties of a protracted legal battle that kept them out of the studio for years. Latifah is living single, and Monie Love is a case for Unsolved Mysteries.
The release of De La’s Stakes Is High and the expected J.B. release have been hailed as the “return of the prodigal tongues.” Still, of the half-dozen acts that composed the Native Tongues, Tribe has been the torchbearer, weaving skillfully through complex topics like date rape and still remaining true to the comic existentialism of “Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” Immune to the sophomore jinx, the group dropped the stellar The Low End Theory and followed that with the megaselling Midnight Marauders. Tribe’s latest release, Beats, Rhymes & Life, is cut from the same pattern as its older siblings but is the most mature of the four. This is somehow a heavier CD than its predecessors, darker but at the same time more spiritual in its references. The trio has trekked through the wilds of the music industry for six years, seen innumerable acts blow up and fall off, and in general grown the hell up. Q-Tip recently converted to Islam and changed his name to Kamaal, Ali Shaheed Muhammad got engaged, and Phife moved to the Southern Mecca, Atlanta. They bring a distinctly adult sensibility to their music, which sets them in sharp contrast to the overage adolescence of many of their contemporaries. Fed up with banal gat/weed lyrics, Tribe comes off as explicitly anti-gun, anti-blunt, and anti-violence, but manages for the most part to do so without sounding like a public service announcement. Early on, Tip declares that “All that Glock-toting trash you talk won’t prevail/That shit is stale/You either end up dead or in jail.”
Beats is also less jazzy than Theory or Marauders (bassist Ron Carter doesn’t appear on any of the cuts). Consequently, this is a showcase for the more than ample production skills of Muhammad. Tribe’s members have always been vibe architects, and Beats is no exception—this is probably the group’s most seamlessly produced work. There isn’t a huge diversity of sound among the 15 tracks, most of which are built around keyboards and bass, but they are innovatively produced. The tracks bear enough resemblance to each other to carry on the same laid-back vibe, but never overlap or become redundant. “Phony Rappers,” the leadoff cut, details the trials of Phife and Tip being challenged by would-be upstart rappers who think that Tribe can’t hold its own on the boulevard. Phife drops jewels throughout the track, dismissing heads who “need a Phillie blunt before they can get loose,” saying, “Please, I get loose off of orange juice.” “The Motivators” finds Tribe dropping rhymes over an off-kilter drum track laced with guitar flourishes and keyboards, then segues into “Jam,” a snapshot of the banal industry party scene, filled with get-high fanatics and the inevitable Glock-toting bad boys.
The standouts, though, are “1nce Again,” a melodic reprise from Low End Theory, which features newcomer Tammy Lucas on vocals, and “Crew,” a noir tale of friendship and betrayal woven over sparse cymbals and keyboards. Faith Evans appears on the final cut, “Stressed Out,” an ode to transcending daily trials that brings De La Soul’s “Tread Water” to mind. Artistically, Beats, Rhymes & Life falls somewhere between People’s Travels and Midnight Marauders (Theory remains Tribe’s best work). But Tribe, as I’ve been reminded, is like Michael Jordan—even when the group is not at its best, it’s still better than 90 percent of the other people in the game.
And though Beats has been called Tribe’s most cynical release, I disagree. It’s probably the group’s most serious conversation with the world around it. And unlike their contemporaries, Tribe’s members understand a subtle truth: Staying true to the streets doesn’t necessarily mean affirming everything that goes on in them.CP