During my first year in college, a kid on my dorm floor kept a small tape recorder next to his bed. On it was a recording of his grandmother, simply talking. It was unspectacular to everyone but him, of course. College freshmen did things like this in the days before FaceTime or Skype, when you, perhaps, had to share a phone with three other people in a single room, and privacy was rare. The reality, though, was that his grandmother was gone and this was all he had left. She had died the spring before, so he held on to her voice, speaking of the mundane. I think about this often, perhaps always. By that I mean that I am always thinking about how we keep our ghosts close to us — the ways we store them and pull them out of our closets when we most need their memories — the way that, if we’re lucky, we have a new echo to mix in with the old.
My favorite story about Q-Tip is the one where, in 1991, when A Tribe Called Quest were coming off of their stunning and critically acclaimed debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, an interviewer asked him if he was afraid of a sophomore jinx. Q-Tip scoffed, “‘Sophomore jinx’? What the fuck is that? I’m going to make The Low End Theory.” This is the best Q-Tip story, the one that has defined the most formative aspect of his sprawling vision: an eye toward the work, without ever glancing over his shoulder. Even if it is never explicitly spoken, most musical groups, across genres, are sold to us with a single genius in the center; everyone else in the group just adds to the canvas after the visionary has their turn at it. This person is also the group’s propeller, pushing them past whatever boundaries they thought they’d hit. The Beach Boys had Brian Wilson. TLC had Left Eye. A Tribe Called Quest has had Q-Tip. They’ve always had Q-Tip, even when it seemed impossible for him to keep going.
It’s Saturday night, and on the television, Q-Tip’s shoulders look as heavy as I’ve ever seen them. Over his left shoulder on the Saturday Night Live stage is the face of Phife Dawg, Malik, his dearly departed brother, co-creator, sometimes rival. He is at the tail end of the song “The Space Program,” from Tribe’s new album released just a day before, shouting into his microphone: “Let’s make something happen, let’s make something happen, let’s make something happen!” When the song finally winds down, Q-Tip turns to walk off the stage and is embraced by Busta Rhymes — the kind of hug that someone gives to another person they have walked through battle with. Jarobi joins the hug, and then Consequence, while Phife looks down on them, both literally and in any spiritual way that one could hope for.
There they are, after a hellish week, the almighty Tribe Called Quest, not through with us yet. Q-Tip’s shoulders fall and his left arm, even in the embrace, goes slack, like it is expecting to hold someone else.
The fascinating thing about We Got It from Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service, the album that Tribe have said will be their last, is how it sits, sonically, within the current hip-hop landscape. Sure, perhaps the answer is that A Tribe Called Quest were always ahead of their time, making music that sounded futuristic yet still touchable. But even considering that, it’s stunning to hear how much of the album feels like a slightly updated version of the same brilliant sound that A Tribe Called Quest crafted in the 1990s — a fresh download of everything, newer and cleaner. They don’t sound bitter about the genre, or jaded with its evolution. They are architects, after all — builders who don’t bow to the land but know how to make the land bow to them. It’s still percussion and jazz-leaning intricacies. It’s still the occasional surprising guitar or horn, coming out of nowhere to glue a song together. And, yes, it’s still Q-Tip’s breathless, run-on sentence flow, the words bleeding into each other until the language itself becomes an instrument. And, yes, there is Phife here, too. Maybe it’s just how much I needed them to still be young, but I don’t think anyone sounded older. Phife, still on his toes, shit-talking and praising in the same breath: “You clowns is bum sauce / Speak my name, it’s curtains / Alhamdullilah, my crew’s back to workin’,” and you can tell he means it.
The verses of the dead are a funny thing. I want, more than anything, to put a seashell to my ear and hear not the ocean but the voices of everyone I once loved who is now gone. Listening to Phife’s brilliance on this album is both stunning and heartbreaking in that way — you press stop on a voice and the voice is truly stopped, but sometimes it’s not. Also, because of his minimal solo output over the years, and because history sometimes paints him only as Q-Tip’s sideman, it was easy to forget the things Phife did so well in his prime. He’s still as punchy and clever as he always was, delightfully tongue-in-cheek (“Fourth-grade reading level / But he knows how to rap” on “Whateva Will Be”) and still drops the occasional up-to-date sports reference (“Status, Chris Paul and John Wall in the league” on “Dis Generation”). It’s a late reminder of what drew so many of us to Phife in the first place. A reminder that is more potent now, of course, but one that echoes long after the music ends.
It’s impossible to speak of this album without also speaking of the time it arrived in. The second song, “We the People ...” is powered by its mocking, scathing hook: “All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go ...” It’s the voice of America turned in on itself, the voice that many of us pretended was at a distance until it was a consistent and low drone, until it had begun activating the most violent among us, from the highest office in the country. It’s jarring, to hear a sentiment made that plain in a week where the country vomited on its own shirt and then looked around and asked who made the mess. It says what we’ve known all along, even as people now wring their hands, eager for the “new” art that marginalized people will create: Black folks have been creating with their backs against the wall for years, telling the future, speaking what is coming to the masses that aren’t eager to hear it until what’s coming actually arrives, looming over them.
Writing about music today feels even more small and trivial than it usually does. The times are urgent, and I know nothing but going back to what I love, but music still feels tiny and disposable. I think, though, that perhaps we will cling to our art and learn to truly love our artists. I am not OK, and even if I were to find the time to be OK, there are too many people I love who are not OK, and I feel that weight on top of my own. And still, with last week fresh, and everyone covered in our respective heaviness, A Tribe Called Quest rose again, and they were also not OK. You can hear it in the album’s gentler moments, the songs where Q-Tip is largely alone, like the somber and sparse “Melatonin,” where he opens his first verse: “The understudy for the star / The show must go on.”
The show, it seems, ends here, and we didn’t even deserve for it to take us this far. Earlier this year, I didn’t think I wanted another Tribe Called Quest album. Then Phife died, and I wanted another Tribe Called Quest album more than anything. Then it arrived, and it was even greater than I could have ever asked for. The heroic and brilliant Tribe Called Quest, who almost certainly have nothing left to give us now; the greatest rap group of all time, who returned in a week when the world caught fire to give us one final everlasting gift. It’s one way to keep a beloved ghost in our ears, no matter what uncertain hell awaits.