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When the Jungle Brothers’ Afrika Baby Bam declared that “Native Tongues got rhymes galore” on De La Soul’s “Buddy” (Native Tongue Decision Remix) in 1989―a slightly modified version of his “Afrika got rhymes galore” line from the JBs’ 1988 single “Because I Got It Like That”―it was a profound and prescient proclamation of the hip-hop collective’s prowess and productivity.
The ensuing years would indeed prove that the Native Tongues family―comprised at its core of the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep and Monie Love―was possessed of a distinctive passion for lyrical acuity and sonic adventurism, alongside their trademark virtues of playfulness, positivity, and pride. Equal measures whimsy and wit, the ensemble exuded an unparalleled bohemian cool, righteous Afrocentric sophistication, and refreshing humility, all of which coalesced for an irresistibly vibrant and soul-affirming listening experience.
Though De La Soul’s Posdnuos affirmed that the “Native Tongues has officially been reinstated” back in 1996 on the lead single and title track of their Stakes Is High LP, the sentiment became relevant once again last year, with the highly anticipated releases of De La’s and the Anonymous Nobody… and Tribe’s We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. Though very different in sound and vision, both albums reminded the groups’ loyal devotees―and the music world as a whole―that their shared abilities to excite, delight and inspire are still fully intact. And in the case of the latter LP, it was a bittersweet reminder of the late Phife Dawg’s indelible legacy.
Hence why the Albumism team recently decided to submit our individual votes for the 15 greatest studio albums spanning the Native Tongues members’ deep discographies, the consensus rankings of which appear below. We fully recognize that this is a blatantly subjective exercise, as most lists are. But we also hope that our selections inspire some healthy debate among our fellow Native Tongues aficionados, while rekindling our readers’ affection for one of hip-hop’s most beloved and influential collectives.
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#15 | QUEEN LATIFAH | Black Reign
Revisited by Justin Chadwick
A commanding extension of the pro-black, alpha-female platform that had defined her first two albums (1989’s All Hail the Queen and 1991’s Nature of a Sista), Queen Latifah’s third long player solidified her right to bear the crown of hip-hop’s underrated and often marginalized female contingent. Over groove-laden soundscapes that intriguingly reside somewhere between quiet storm atmospherics and boom bap beats, Latifah once again showcased her proven penchant for no-nonsense rhymes and relatable narratives across the expanse of Black Reign’s 15 tracks.
Devoid of filler and consistently listenable throughout, Black Reign boasts plenty of standout tracks, including the rolling bass of album opener “Black Hand Side,” the soothing, Herb Alpert indebted ode to neighborhood fidelity “Just Another Day,” and the rugged posse cut entitled “Rough…,” featuring Treach of Naughty by Nature, KRS-One and the late Heavy D. Other notable moments include the reggae flavored “Weekend Love” in which Latifah flexes her vocal range and the jazz-laced closing tune “Winki’s Theme,” a dedication to her brother Lancelot who died in a 1992 motorcycle accident.
Black Reign’s centerpiece, of course, is the anthemic, Grammy Award-winning “U.N.I.T.Y.” propelled by Latifah’s inspired call-to-resistance for her sisters to confront chauvinism and domestic abuse head-on, which unfolds atop an unforgettable horn-blessed sample lifted from The Crusaders’ 1972 gem “A Message from the Inner City.”
Released as Latifah was transitioning from seasoned hip-hop maven to multi-media tour de force, Black Reign reinforced that at her core, she was, is and will always be the embodiment of pure hip-hop royalty, through and through.
#14 | A TRIBE CALLED QUEST | We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
Revisited by Matt Koelling
The most incredible thing about this incredible album, is that it even exists at all. Released eight months after the tragic loss of Phife Dawg, to complications from diabetes at the age of 45, all signs had already pointed to the official end of Tribe. Even before Phife’s death, it had been nearly twenty years since the original group had released their somewhat disappointing swan song effort, 1998’s The Love Movement. It had been nearly a quarter century since their last classic album as a unit, 1993’s Midnight Marauders.
In this current millennium, the only signs of life from A Tribe Called Quest collectively were a series of one-off festival reunion shows, a pair of appearances on New York City dates as special guests opening for Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour, and an October 2015 appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It was that final public act, which led the “core four” of Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White to make their first full-fledged attempt at reaffirming their rich recorded legacy since the late nineties.
Four months of Phife, hampered by ongoing illness, traveling cross-country from his Oakland residence to Q-Tip’s home-studio, particularly with Muhammad preoccupied with his soundtrack/scoring collaboration project with Adrian Younge for Marvel’s Luke Cage Netflix series, did not seem like the right recipe for Tribe’s resurrection. Particularly when most outside their inner-circle, plus a small group of artistic admirers and industry insiders, didn’t even know it was happening. Yet the combination of Phife Dawg blessing his brethren with a series of top-shelf, life-filled rhymes while quite literally running out of time, Jarobi displaying his rapping ability on record for the first time, some help from old friends, and further inspiration from their musical offspring, all led to the man who “never asked to be the Ginsu master of this shit” producer-leader Q-Tip, completing this New Jersey basement b-boy bouillabaisse in Phife’s absence. The result is one of the best surprises in hip-hop history, the finest album of any genre in 2016, and the greatest album to ever come from the Native Tongues collective.
Yeah, I said it. Some might consider it too early to make such claims. I say what the circumstances leading to this album’s creation show us is the importance of giving our artists and loved ones the roses while they can still smell them. Meanwhile the vapors emanating from this shocking late-career masterpiece will only grow more fragrant over time. Tribe made an album that somehow sounded like Tribe, but didn’t fall down the rabbit-hole of nostalgia that often plagues the work of decorated veteran acts. In addition to that, it was quite-literally the first new album of the post-Trump election era, with content that seemed to respond and react to the implications of Trump’s victory even while the timeline has to suggest it hadn’t even officially happened yet. Four days later, the three remaining members of Tribe, along with some longtime family-in-rhyme in Consequence and the great Busta Rhymes, were performing a combined wake and tribute on Saturday Night Live. It all made for a heady week no Tribe fan will soon forget.
It’s for those reasons, plus the simple fact that We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service simply BANGS front to back, that I voted for it to occupy the top slot in this Native Tongues albums poll. As you can see from this ending up in the #14 slot, directly behind far lesser works like Monie Love’s Down to Earth and De La Soul’s The Grind Date, my vote did not carry the day. Albumism, like America, is a democracy. But the bottom line is I take a semblance of pride in knowing my #1 vote is likely a big reason this album got into the Top 15 at all. Much like this past presidential election, less than sixth months since both occurred, I feel fairly confident that history has got it from here. In the meantime, we thank A Tribe Called Quest 4 their service. Rest in Power, Phife.
#13 | MONIE LOVE | Down to Earth
Warner Bros. (1990)
Revisited by Daryl McIntosh
With standout cameos on classic Native Tongue posse records such as the Jungle Brothers’ “Doin Our Own Thang,” De La Soul’s “Buddy,” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” Monie Love garnered as much buzz from New York City to Los Angeles and all the way across the pond to her home in London by 1990.
Following in the footsteps of her Native Tongue big sis Queen Latifah, as the voices of hip-hop feminism, Down to Earth manufactured two undeniable classics in “It’s a Shame (My Sista)” and “Monie in the Middle”, not a small feat for the baby-faced femcee that was not even of legal drinking age at the time the LP was released.
The experimental album, which features numerous tracks heavily influenced by the wave of house music, was noticeably independent of the signature production from Prince Paul, Q-Tip, and others that helped establish the sound of the legendary collective. But the obscure track “Pups Lickin’ Bone” was one of the early showcases of later Native Tongue affiliate JuJu of the Beatnuts.
Probably not exceeding the expectations of the hardcore Native Tongue fan, Monie’s debut album is an idiosyncratic offering of female consciousness that has endured as a valuable piece of hip-hop history, creating several memorable moments, from an artist who arguably overachieved because of her sincere passion for the culture.
#12 | DE LA SOUL | The Grind Date
AOI/Sanctuary Urban (2004)
Revisited by Patrick Corcoran
De La Soul’s seventh album landed in October 2004 and came stripped back, leaner and more tightly focused than some of their previous output. At just 13 tracks, it was also noticeable for its lack of skits or segues―a fad they helped initiate, but one that had long reached its sell by date.
Production duties were split between Supa Dave West (who’d worked with De La for their AOI series) and a number of the very best producers hip-hop could offer. J Dilla lent his genius to three tracks, 9th Wonder contributed the spine-tingling highlight “Church,” and Madlib worked on two―most notably the stuttering, shuffling update of Herbie Hancock’s percussive bottles from his Headhunters album (“Shopping Bags”). Surprisingly though, it was relative unknown, Jake One, who added the most satisfying flavor. The sedentary, robotic “Rock Co Kane Flow” thrust MF Doom into the mix and fearsome rap havoc ensued.
Despite the plethora of producers and guest artists, one thing is never in doubt―this is a De La Soul album. With wisdom, character and intelligence the three Long Islanders showed there was plenty of life in them yet.
#11 | QUEEN LATIFAH | All Hail the Queen
Tommy Boy (1989)
Revisited by Quentin Harrison
Dana Owens, better known as Queen Latifah, was one of the two leading ladies (alongside Monie Love) of the Native Tongues clique. It isn't hard to see why she was revered when taking her debut All Hail the Queen (1989) into account. With production assistance from the likes of Prince Paul, KRS-One, and the 45 King among others, Latifah herself handled almost all of the writing or co-writing duties for the long player. The final product was a saucy party record that in the Queen's own words was, “Hip-hop house, hip-hop jazz, with a little pizzaz!”
Latifah operated within conventional hip-hop infrastructure with the classic jam “Ladies First,” but her foray into dance music culture on “Come Into My House” evinced her wide-ranging tastes and dual abilities as a singer and emcee. Her later recordings proved to be just as engaging as heard on the politically charged Black Reign (1993) or the adventurous covers LP The Dana Owens Album (2004), but All Hail the Queen was where it all began.
#10 | DE LA SOUL | Stakes Is High
Tommy Boy (1996)
Revisited by Justin Chadwick
“I'm sick of bitches shakin' asses / I'm sick of talkin' 'bout blunts, sick of Versace glasses / Sick of slang, sick of half-ass awards shows / Sick of name brand clothes / Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks / Cocaine and crack, which brings sickness to blacks / Sick of swoll' head rappers with their sicker than raps / Clappers of gats, makin' the whole sick world collapse.” As evidenced by Dave’s first verse on the classic title track to De La Soul’s fourth studio album, few albums have encapsulated the antagonism between Golden Era hip-hop and its more commercialized cousin that inevitably emerged in the mid ‘90s than Stakes Is High.
Indeed, De La’s follow-up to 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate is an unapologetic lament for the state of hip-hop in the mid-90s. By then, of course, the chase for platinum plaques had begun to dilute the music of its intrinsic purity and soul, replacing it with superficial elements that betrayed the culture’s essence and threatened its vitality through over-saturation.
Stakes Is High also marked a creative transition for the group, as it represents the first of their albums that they self-produced, without the production prowess of Prince Paul who orchestrated their first three LPs. Nonetheless, De La invited an impressive crop of contributors to bolster the affair, including Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla) who co-produced the aforementioned title track, Common who delivers the middle verse on “The Bizness,” and a then-unknown emcee named Mos Def on “Big Brother Beat.”
A bold reclamation—and recalibration—of Posdnuos, Dave & Maseo’s steadfast purpose to fight for hip-hop’s preservation, Stakes Is High remains an indispensable component of the trio’s prolific repertoire. In other words, essential listening for any true hip-hop fan.
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#9 | JUNGLE BROTHERS | Done by the Forces of Nature
Warner Bros. (1989)
Revisited by Jesse Ducker
With 1989’s Done by the Forces of Nature, the Jungle Brothers created an album that’s as ambitious as it is diverse in its sound and execution. The JBs were never as abstract as their other Native Tongues brethren. While De La Soul rapped in heavily coded double-meanings, and A Tribe Called Quest became notorious for their abstract poeticals, the Jungle Brothers by and large took a straightforward approach to their music.
Done by the Forces of Nature is probably the most overtly political Native Tongues album (its only competition is Tribe’s latest and last release), with Baby Bam and Mike G rapping extensively on their pro-Black philosophy and view of the world. But at the same time, the album also has some of the Native Tongues’ most danceable and club-friendly tracks. That’s not a slight in any way, as the Jungle Brothers were adept at making music that made their fans’ butts move, without sounding commercial and watered-down. And simultaneously, it’s a feel-good album: I can’t think of a hip-hop track that puts a bigger smile on my face than “Feelin’ Alright.” It’s an absolute gem of an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with anything released during that time.
#8 | BLACK SHEEP | A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Revisited by Jesse Ducker
Everyone knows that Black Sheep sounded completely different from the other acts in the Native Tongues collective. While other members of the crew leaned heavily on upliftment and cultural awareness, Black Sheep talked about the hoes they knew all the time and were occasionally crass while doing so. What’s often overlooked is that while Dres and Mista Lawnge were indeed comparatively the jelly-donut making, cesspool swimming, premarital sex-having low-lifes of the family tree, the music, particularly their first album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing was very true to the Native Tongues spirit.
On the album Dres approaches the mic as a cross between Morris Day and Eddie Murphy, the smooth yet foul-mouthed rake, armed with charm and panache. Musically, the beats on the album meld early ’70s jazz fusion with psychedelic rock, creating a groovy yet trippy soundtrack. Never have raunchy tales of ménage a trois’ (“La Ménage”) and braggadocio-rap anthems (“Gimme the Finga”) sounded so mellow and funky. Meanwhile, tracks like “Flavor of Month” and “The Choice Is Yours” remain some of the best hip-hop singles of the early ’90s.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is not only one of the finest albums to come out of the Native Tongues family, it’s in the top 0.1% of hip-hop albums ever released. It’s only fitting that the outsiders in the crew of outsiders created some of the best music from the camp.
Proceed to: PART 2