It’s hard not to feel a flood of gratitude for the mere existence of this record. Over the course of five albums and eight years, A Tribe Called Quest accomplished effortlessly and consistently what few others could do once. It’s an impossible ideal: ill and smart; funny and dumb; each sample pulled from some primordial, easygoing ether and the drums knocking insistently, elementally, like they’d been banging since the dawn of time. Tribe’s goodness is like gravity. Their legacy is vast but troubled; they’re the definition of an idea about what makes “good hip-hop”—positive, jazzy, album-centric—that proved near-impossible to replicate. (People tried like hell for a while.) But the albums themselves are evergreen. There isn’t a bad track in the Tribe catalog; there isn’t even a bad verse.
Which points to at least part of the secret: the chemistry between emcees Phife Dawg and Q-Tip. This is part of why it’s so easy to feel a flood of gratitude for this record, released 18 years after what was thought to be their last, 1998’s The Love Movement. When the group disbanded in the late ’90s, there was no expectation of a reunion, and any faint hope disappeared completely when Phife died earlier this year. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, then, is something of a miracle. More than that, it’s good, an unexpected victory lap by Tip, Phife, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and estranged founding member Jarobi.
Completed after Phife’s death, the record’s also an unabashed tribute to him. Q-Tip’s the handsome one, charismatic, the versatile one with pop appeal, and so it has always been easy to think of Phife as something of a foil—a little funnier and scrappier, maybe, but not the driving artistic force. But anyone who made a home inside these records over the past quarter century knows Phife’s the group’s beating heart: its source of joy; the wry, horny prankster; the life of the party. Q-Tip’s an optimist—he believes in people—but Phife is the reason why. We talk about rappers as poets, as journalists, as masters of ceremony. Phife is the rapper as guy you want to hang out with. Hearing him light up a track like “We the People” or the instant classic “Black Spasmodic” is at once chill-inducing and a reminder of how much life an emcee can pack into a couple bars.
Still, Q-Tip’s presence looms large here. The 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life strongly suggested that Q-Tip’s rising star led to Tribe’s disbandment, a theory corroborated by Tip’s post-Tribe records, which forged boldly into pop, fusion freak-outs, and lots of neo-soul. Sonically, We Got It From Here picks up not where the last Tribe record left off but where the last Q-Tip solo record, The Renaissance, did: a sinuous sound collage pulling much more from ’90s and ’00s R&B than it does Native Tongues boom-bap. It works, though. As harrowing as the notion of Jack White and Elton John cameos may be for true-school Tribe heads, they’re flitting sonic embellishments, like the Beastie Boys fuzz bass of “We The People….” or the aquatic prayer that closes the record. It’s warm, intensely musical stuff—much like everything Q-Tip has released in the past decade—but it’s a fitting frame for an amber-colored ode to a lifelong friend.
The record serves another purpose for the rest of us, though, coming as it does three days after a presidential election opposed by the majority of the electorate, and which harbors promises of oppression, deportation, and mass economic disenfranchisement. And so the album is utterly haunted, not just by Phife, who is captured here with the full triumphant glow of his lyrical powers intact, but by us, the listeners who may well have interpreted the record under profoundly different circumstances. How might Tip’s offhand references to a female president sound in that other world? “The Space Program,” the hook of which implores us to “go left and not right,” flips from howl of protest to champagne toast. The album-closing “The Donald” might have been a kiss-off to the anti-Muslim race-baiter; instead, it’s a discordant note of terror against an otherwise jubilant Phife verse.
The record seems designed to work both ways, an almost inconceivable artistic prompt given that one of the two scenarios was business as usual and the other was abject global despair. This in-between-ness pervades the record. While Phife sounds uniformly great, the rest of the group switches among honoring, eulogizing, and working seamlessly alongside him. Q-Tip raps as his old friend at one point and lays out his biography on “Lost Somebody.” The album’s title—apparently Phife’s idea—likewise nods to loss, attempting to bridge the beyond. Two separate song titles end in ellipses, as if, like Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo, they might receive an update at any moment.
They won’t, though. Just like we won’t ever know what this album might’ve sounded like as the celebration music for the first weekend of a post-Trump era. Some things, alas, are final. The best we can do is follow the example set by Tip, Muhammad, and Jarobi, as well as the extended Tribe family assembled here: We get back to work. We finish what we started. The tribe’s called quest because we have to keep moving.