Brother Questlove was right: Sometimes dreams can come true.
For years, it looked like it was an album that would never happen. Members of the beloved group, Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White had gone their separate ways in 1998, pursuing their own musical careers, only occasionally reuniting for lucrative tour offers. Then on March 22, 2016, Phife tragically succumbed to complications from diabetes, a disease that he had battled for most of his life. And with that, it appeared Tribe had finally come to an end.
However, over the summer, Epic Records Chairman/CEP L.A. Reid let slip in an interview that the group had been secretly recording an album in the months leading up to Phife’s death. Q-Tip revealed that the unexpected catalyst came in late 2015, after the group came together to perform “Can I Kick It?” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Inspired by the chemistry they rediscovered on stage, the foursome decided to head back into the studio as soon as they could to record what they all agreed would be their final album as a group.
The only rule they created was that everyone had to record in person at Q-Tip’s New Jersey studio. No e-mailed verses or beats were allowed. This meant Phife flew out from his home in the Bay Area to New Jersey twice a month, crashing with Q-Tip. Unfortunately, these conditions also limited Ali Shaheed Muhammed’s input, as he was busy in Los Angeles, working with Adrian Younge to score the Luke Cage TV show for NetFlix. Sadly, Phife died before the album was completed. Devastated, but determined to finish the process, the group cobbled together what they had already recorded, plus a few extra songs, into a coherent album.
The result is We Got It From Here…, a return to form that is simultaneously triumphant and bittersweet. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like the re-purposed fabled lost Q-Tip solo album The Last Zulu, with old Phife verses grafted on after the fact. It sounds like a fully formed Tribe album, with contributions from all members, key friends of the band, and a few of their well-respected disciples.
We Got It From Here… sounds like the album that Tribe would have made in 2016, even if they had never stopped making music together. It has the distinctive vibe of their previous works, and the beats feel like a logical progression of the group’s sound over nearly two decades. Q-Tip, Phife, and Jarobi share the same magnetic rhyming chemistry, and in many cases, have grown as emcees. We Got It From Here… is likely their best album since Midnight Marauders and in the upper echelon of albums released in 2016.
“Space Program” joins the ranks of Tribe’s great album-opening tracks. The production is upbeat, featuring bouncy keyboards and a complex drum track. The subject matter strikes a tone of warning, but also upliftment, as the crew tackles gentrification and the idea of both the Black and the economically disadvantaged being “left behind” by the ruling class.
Jarobi sets the track off, blazing like a well-oiled lyrical machine gun: “They planning for our future, none of our people involved / Pouring Henny and Smirnoff to get it cracking off / Cracking off a Smirnoff to quickly turn to Molotov / Molotov the spaceship doors before that bitch is taking off / It always seems the poorest persons are the people forsaken, dawg.” Q-Tip follows up next, tying together the track’s themes: “Imagine for one second all the people are colored, please / Imagine for one second all the people in poverty / No matter the skin tone, culture or time zone / Think the ones who got it would even think to throw you a bone? / Moved you out your neighborhood, did they find you a home? / Now cipher, probably no place to / Imagine if this shit was really talkin’ about space, dude.”
“We the People….” tackles similar themes, but paints a bleaker picture, remaining relevant and timely in light of recent political events. Over brooding synths and thumping drums, Q-Tip raps the refrain, “All you Black folks you must go / All you Mexicans you must go / All you poor folks you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways / So all you bad folks you must go.” Meanwhile, Phife derides critics that attempt to stubbornly attach the value of music to the number of units that it sells, “You bastards overlooking street art / Better yet street smarts, but you keep us off the charts / So motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
“Melatonin” is vintage jazzy, spacey Tribe, a Tip solo track that explores the medical means that many must use to make it through the stresses of the day. “Dis Generation” is a track built on hope, featuring Tip, Phife, Jarobi, and frequent Tribe-collaborator Busta Rhymes trading rhymes about their status as hip-hop’s elder statesmen, but remaining optimistic about the future of the music. With the backing of an ethereal and often soaring guitar sample from Argentinean blues-rock band Invisible, Tip hails rappers like Joey Bad@$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J-Cole as the new “gatekeepers of flow” and “extensions of instinctual soul.”
On We Got It From Here…, Tribe makes excellent use of the guest appearances. The idea of Elton John on a Tribe album may sound like a gimmick, but “Solid Wall of Sound” is one of the album’s best songs. It features fittingly dense production, and John’s vocals and piano solo at the end of track makes for a complementary outro. The track also features the aforementioned and newly rejuvenated Busta Rhymes. Hearing him trade dancehall-tinged stanzas with Phife for an extended period of time should put a smile on any hip-hop fan’s face.
Busta later contributes to another of the album’s strongest songs, “Mobius,” where he kicks his strongest verse in years. He attacks the track with ferocity, channeling the dungeon dragon that he first unleashed 25 years ago: “You already know the script, roundhouse kick / She lookin’ at me, licking her lip / Put my arm around her like a bowl of chip with a dip / With your bitch, what the fuck? Niggas erupt / I got the half moon clip, that's banana / A good planner, a new anger like a larger Bruce Banner.”
The album also features verses by other artists that were inspired by Tribe’s music, but may have never been officially affiliated with the Native Tongue family. “Kids” features a strong performance by the ever-elusive André 3000, who long ago credited Tribe as a source for OutKast’s inspiration. Jack White shows up on “Ego,” his electric guitar skills enriching the foreboding baseline and jazzy horns, while Tip kicks a pair of his best verses on the album.
“The Killing Season” leads off with a strong verse by Talib Kweli, while “Conrad Tokyo” features a brief but politically relevant verse by Kendrick Lamar. But it’s Phife who shines the brightest over the largely somber track, rapping “G’wan move with the fuckery, Trump and the SNL hilarity / Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy / Blood clot, you doing, bullshit you spewing / As if this country ain’t already ruined.”
It’s a little strange to say that Phife haunts this album, but it’s sadly apt. He contributes to most of the songs on the album, and his presence is tangible even when he’s not there. Tip and Jarobi pay tribute to their deceased comrade on the somber “Lost Someone.” Both emcees use the track to reminisce over the many years they spent together as both bandmates and close friends. Jarobi’s verse is especially poignant, reflecting on the highs and lows they went through together: “A nigga wanna battle, you know Phifey didn’t care / Jarobi with the beat, into new ass we tear / Imma flash forward well, took a trip to ATL / Cooking in the kitchen making sure my nigga eating well / Wedding in Tobago, you know exactly where I’m at / Standing on the side of black Malik Izaak.” In an unsubtle touch, the song cuts off mid-chorus, much as life can end without warning for anyone.
Hearing this album makes me sad almost as much as it makes me happy. While I’m grateful to have one more Tribe album in my life, it saddens me that the crew never found a way to keep recording music. Through the various reunion tours and the authorized documentary, it took nearly two decades for the group members to return to the studio together.
But in the end, I’m thankful that the group found a way to make it happen, and created an album that is both timely and timeless. An album that is fearful for the state of the world, yet confident that the people will find a way to conquer the obstacles that stand before them. And, most of all, they created an album that honors their enduring legacy as hip-hop legends. Any group that hasn’t recorded music together in nearly two decades should be so lucky.
Notable Tracks: “Conrad Tokyo” | “Wall of Sound” | “We the People....”