A review of A Tribe Called Quest’s endlessly inventive new (and sadly, final) album. This comes from Pitchfork, written by kris ex, and dated Nov. 17th, 2016…
A Tribe Called Quest’s sixth (and final) album was a rumor for 18 years. It’s here, and against many odds, it reinvigorates the group’s discography without resting on nostalgia.
Since their 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, A Tribe Called Quest have been forward-thinking, presenting their albums as full-length meditations on sound and society. They didn’t break new ground as much as they dug deeper into the lands beneath their feet, turning stones and cultivating fertile soil, unearthing the past and tending the roots, with album-length suites centered around loose conceits—the light diary of Instinctive Travels, the aural dive into drums, bass, and downbeats of 1991’s The Low End Theory, the pan-African flight of 1993’s Midnight Marauders, the dysfunction of hip-hop’s materialism on 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, and the yearning sadness of 1998’s The Love Movement. The latter strived to serve as a healing elixir and balm for what was, up until recently, the swan song for one of the greatest acts that hip-hop has ever produced.
Alluded to constantly via rumors and unfounded hopes, a forthcoming Tribe album seemed like wishful thinking for years. Despite the assurances of legendary music executives, fans could not be blamed for being cynical. The group had splintered fabulously, as documented in Michael Rapaport’s unflinching 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Moreover, the death of member Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor earlier this year, seemed to ensure that any future efforts would be full of excavated throwaways and repurposed vocals from other projects made fresh via studio magic. Yet, We Got It from Here exists, their sixth (and final) album, and it’s full of unblemished offerings that were recorded at Q-Tip’s home studio following their performance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show one year ago. And, against many odds, it’s an album that reinvigorates the group’s enviable discography without resting on the nostalgia of past accomplishment.
The album’s first number, “The Space Program,” is quintessential Tribe—it has that sooty bottom heavy warmness, the uncluttered arrangements and bright instrumentation, and it sounds like a piece of 2016 instead of a fragment of 1994. For the first time in their career, the entire group appears to be at their peak, exuding a well-earned effortlessness. Even if Ali Shaheed Muhammad is listed nowhere on the credits, the act’s three MC’s—the abstract Q-Tip, the ruffneck Phife, and the often M.I.A. Jarobi—are on point all the time, picking up each other’s couplets and passing microphones like hot potatoes. On “The Space Program,” Jarobi rhymes “We takin’ off to Mars, got the space vessels overflowin’/What, you think they want us there? All us niggas not goin’,” before Q-Tip nimbly takes over with “Reputation ain’t glowin’, reparations ain’t flowin’/If you find yourself stuck in a creek, you better start rowin’.” The song plays with a sci-fi framing—“There ain’t no space program for niggas/Yo, you stuck here, nigga”—yet it’s not about an imaginary future, but right now. “Imagine if this shit was really talkin’ about space, dude,” Q-Tip raps, unveiling the entire song as a metaphor for gentrification, perhaps even forecasting the showdown over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. And just that quickly, you realize that Tribe—poetical, allegorical, direct, and forever pushing forward from the present—are back as if they never left.
The timeliness of this album can’t be understated, nor could it have been predicted. On “We the People…,” Q-Tip breaks out into a mini-song as 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 folk, you must go.” It follows in the pathways of Jamila Woods’ HEAVN and Solange Knowles’ A Seat at the Table as an album that expresses the deeply painful and deep-seated racist attitudes of current America without rancor. That the hook echoes President-elect Donald Trump’s most famous and reductionist campaign views works in ways that it would not had Hillary Clinton garnered enough electoral college votes to win the election. (For comparison, the video for Ty Dolla Sign and Future’s “Campaign,” released the day before the election, seemed to bank on a Clinton victory in its jubilation, but now feels tone deaf.) Ironically, Tribe may have also been seeing a Clinton victory; Q-Tip references a female president on “The Space Program.”
A decade and a half ago, while working on his (erroneously shelved, then belatedly released) sophomore album Kamaal the Abstract, Q-Tip was asked about grown men making hip-hop music—he had, after all, just entered his thirties and was still playing at what is largely a young person’s game. He countered that hip-hop was not solely a youth genre; that the media and commercial forces had made it so; that the top MC of the moment—Jay-Z—was in his thirties; that the best art comes not from the exuberance of youth, but the mastery of form. We got it from Here proves that he was right.
Q-Tip has long been quietly regarded as one of hip-hop’s most thoughtful and inventive producers, and this album is full of accomplished flourishes. On the lascivious “Enough!!,” the vocals of Ms Jck (of undersung alt-R&B progenitors J*Davey) are treated like source material, woven into the musical bed. There are layered, echoing, melodic sonic manipulations and restrained uses of Jack White and Elton John on “Solid Wall of Sound.” On the introspective and confessional “Ego,” White (again) is used sparingly and smartly for subdued electric guitar touches. We got it from Here is not the music of a producer showing off, but of one knowing what to do and when to do it. There is a bevy of guests on this record, but they all serve the project like instruments that come in and out without attempting to take over with solo turns.
When “Dis Generation” uses a sample of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie,” one can see a labyrinth of in-jokes and conceptual easter eggs that extends to the rhymes: Phife prefers cabs to Uber; Jarobi is wizened, smoking on “impeccable grass” and waiting for New York to approve medical marijuana; and Busta Rhymes—who appears multiple times and sounds more at home with his Native Tongues brethren than he ever has with the extended Cash Money bling set or even on his The Abstract and the Dragon mixtape with Q-Tip—is “Bruce Lee-in’ niggas while you niggas UFC.” For his part, Q-Tip shouts out Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole as “gatekeepers of flow/They are extensions of instinctual soul.” It’s what ATCQ has always been—self-referential without being self-serving, part of the pack but moving at their own pace, and able to lightly and relatedly convey observations that would be heavy and pedantic from just about anyone else.
It can’t be said enough how simply good this record sounds and feels. Everyone here shows themselves to be a better rapper than they have ever been before, but that still doesn’t capture the ease and exuberance of it all, how Q-Tip curls flows and words on “The Donald,” how Jarobi surprises with packed strings of rhyme at each turn, how Phife and Busta Rhymes dip effortlessly in and out of Caribbean patois and Black American slanguage. (And that’s not even taking into account Consequence’s inventive word marriages on “Mobius” and “Whateva Will Be,” Kendrick Lamar’s energetic angst on “Conrad Tokyo,” or Andre 3000’s and Tip’s playful tag team on “Kids…”) The music is decidedly analog, a refutation of polished sheen and maximal perfection; it’s an extension and culmination of ATCQ’s jazz-influenced low-end theory. But that doesn’t capture the bounces, grooves, sexual moans, random bleeps, stuttering drums that float throughout—like every classic Tribe album, it defies simple descriptions.
Many of the songs here hearken back to off-kilter and underexposed gems of days past (see: Tribe’s “One Two Shit” with Busta Rhymes and De La Soul’s ATCQ-featuring “Sh.Fe. MC’s” from days past for musical antecedents) without feeling like retreads, the free-wheeling whimsy and experimentation of the past having been replaced a grounded irony and proficiency. So much has stayed the same and yet so much has changed.
There’s no overriding story that easily presents itself—no vocal guide a la Midnight Marauders, no driving ethos served on platter like the Low End Theory; the title itself, which lends to an interpretation of this as a project of hubris demanding homage, is never explicitly explained. Even Phife’s death is given due reverence, but isn’t treated as a central theme. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is all just beats, rhymes, and life. Nothing about this feels like a legacy cash-in; it feels like a legit A Tribe Called Quest album. We should be the ones thanking them.
A review of Common’s new politically-charged album, which came out last month. This review comes from Ed “STATS” Houghton (Pitchfork), dated Nov. 4th, 2016.
This is Common’s best album in years…
Common’s dissonant, politically-charged new album Black America Again finds him angry and off-balance — which feels like it’s exactly where he should be.
At 11 albums strong, Common’s career has passed through so many stages that he’s got a trail of shed skins, including two or three different rappers (and half a rock star) along the way. So when his later-period albums, from 2014’s tough and sorrowful Nobody’s Smiling to this week’s striking Black America Again, are called a return to form for the Chicago-bred MC, it may be important to clarify which form he’s returning to, and establish some signposts for hearing an album as momentous as this one is.
Back in 2014, Common’s frequent collaborator Questlove called for a revival of protest music in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. Scarcely two years on, ugly racial rhetoric has characterized a seemingly endless campaign season, outrage over extrajudicial police killings has taken on a sort of sick rhythm, and it’s actually hard to remember a world where there was a shortage of protest music. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, among others, have upended expectations and reinvigorated and expanded the category frames (hip-hop, soul or simply black music) placed around them.
This is important context for listening to Black America Again, partly because great albums from the Okayplayer/Soulquarian family seem to come in waves—and there is a strong case to be made that Black America Again is to Black Messiah what Like Water for Chocolate was to the 2000-era classics Voodoo and Things Fall Apart. Some of the big-room soul flourishes (courtesy of John Legend and BJ the Chicago Kid) trend toward the thematically safer sound that characterized Com’s Oscar winning Selma song; a touch expected—corny, even—if still emotionally stirring. But overall Karriem Riggins’ gritty, moody production provides Com with his most eclectic (and apt) sonic backing since Kanye’s production on Be. It may also be the angriest—and not coincidentally, sharpest lyrically—we’ve seen Com since his Ice Cube dis “Bitch in Yoo”—warmed-over beefs with Drake notwithstanding.
Yet there is clearly more to Black America Again than just ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness. After all, in a season when #BlackLivesMatter is at the front of the public consciousness, pretty much every artist who shows up to the BET Awards (and a bunch who didn’t) has adopted the appropriate signifiers of Woke-ness—right down to erstwhile Rubber Band Man T.I.—without necessarily touching artistic greatness. It is, in fact, the way the current mood dovetails with Common’s personal story arc that gives it its power. After prophetically calling on America to “Impeach [Bush] and elect Obama” on Jadakiss’ 2004 “Why” remix, Com has arguably spent the Obama years seeking a worthy opponent for his battle skills—and failing to locate one. The bloodshed and racial tension of 2015-16 have finally focused his considerable firepower. It also doesn’t hurt that it was helmed by the brilliant Karriem Riggins, the Detroit-based drummer who has been a staple of Common’s live band for years—and who has truly stepped into his own with his production work here.
Riggins works firmly in the post-metric genre-verse first explored by J Dilla, but he is one of the few beatmakers who can truly hang with the master. His sonically grungy, emotionally and rhythmically complex arrangements push Com’s flow into an off-balance, never-quite-slipping dance that will be familiar to longtime fans as Com’s zone. From the moment he stepped on the scene in the early ’90s, Com has been a sharp battle rapper, noted for laying down bars in solid combinations of gut-punches like a prize fighter, yet capable of a sort of tipsy whimsy when he allows himself to be loose.
This is exactly the side of Common that Riggins’ compositions bring out of him, and for the first 10 tracks or so, the album flows along flawlessly. Frenetic drum patterns rush ahead of the beat even as noodle-y electric jazz textures and screwed vocal samples pull backward at different speeds, interrogating the meter of “straight” time in ways that recall Dilla’s drunken drums. Bilal’s vocals add another layer of virtuosic dissonance to several tracks while Common’s Yoda-like constructions (“As dirty as the water in Flint the system is”) create internal rhyme schemes and tripping-into-the-next bar rhyme schemes in counterpoint with the off-kilter beats.
The chemistry is so right, in fact, it’s enough to make you re-evaluate Com’s career arc, at least since 2000. For many fans his artistic growth peaked in the Soulquarian era, then spun out on Electric Circus where he maybe got a bit too loose. In this reading of Common’s story arc, recent outings (2011’s The Dreamer/The Believer; 2014’s Nobody’s Smiling) are less comeback triumphs than back-to-basics bootcamps, or the solid road-game victories he needed before he regained the confidence to stretch out and loosen up a little again.
The single and title track “Black America Again” is a brilliant case in point; huge piano chords overpower a drum break that is EQ’ed into such crispy upper reaches of the treble range that it threatens to disappear, an inversion of all conventional pop or hip-hop logic. Even Stevie Wonder’s relentlessly melodious voice is chopped and phrased in unexpected ways and Com’s delivery channels the spoken-word of his idols the Last Poets in a way that stands alongside his very best verses: “You know, you know we from a family of fighters/Fought in your wars and our wars/You put a nigga in Star Wars/Maybe you need two/And then maybe then we’ll believe you.”
Momentum falters a bit on “The Day Women Took Over” a well-meaning narrative that posits woman-power as the solution to all problems but reduces them to embodiments of abstract virtues, rather than identities or agents of their own desires, reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. But Common finds his footing again with “Little Chicago Boy” (the requisite variation on “Pop’s Rap”) and “Letter to the Free,” which serves as a sort of closing argument. If it ends the album on a more sedate note, the choice feels deliberate, reminding us that in his most inspiring moments, Common is swinging at the Big Questions of our time, and that even his loose improvisations are still part of a larger project.
It’s very much worth unpacking that project, since it both dovetails with and cuts against the grain of modern Black activist thought. Common has in fact taken heat for suggesting in interviews that Black people should respond to racism by “extending my hand in love.” Even as he gives voice to his hurt and anger and eloquently runs down the undeniable crimes committed against Black Americans, he seems to be asking again throughout the album’s lyrics what freedom could even look like in this America—and time and again he suggests that freedom itself is an act of improvisation, of imagination, that begins now: “We write our own story.”
It’s in the context of these bigger ideas that Com lands some of his biggest gut-punches of all time, while rapping in his simpler, prize fighter mode: “No consolation prize for the dehumanized/For America to rise/It’s a matter of Black lives/And we gon’ free them so we can free us…”—bringing home again the sheer magnitude of the forces he’s been dancing with all along.
Edwin “STATS” Houghton
A review of The Stones’ excellent new blues album, from The Guardian. Written by Alexis Petridis, dated Nov. 24th, 2016…
More Alive Than They’ve Sounded for Years
Mick Jagger’s voice and harmonica drive an album of blues covers that returns the Stones to their roots.
Last week, a US journalist interviewing the Rolling Stones offered up a 21st-century spin on the old ‘Can white men sing the blues?’ argument. Wasn’t the Stones’ early repertoire, heavy on the songs of Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters et al, just an example of cultural appropriation, he asked? You might charitably describe Keith Richards’ response as a little confused. At one juncture, he appeared to suggest that the blues was actually “quite Jewish,” but the bulk of the answer consisted of Richards insisting that he was, in fact, black: “Ask any of the brothers.”
Tireless on your behalf, I’ve researched this thoroughly and can exclusively reveal that he isn’t. But equally, the charge of cultural appropriation feels deeply unfair. The biggest band of the British blues boom were always among the loudest cheerleaders for the real deal. They never pulled the grim Led Zeppelin trick of claiming they’d written songs they’d clearly swiped from old blues artists, never missed an opportunity to take BB King on tour or to try to educate their audience about the artists they were paying homage to. “I think it’s about time you shut up and we had Howlin’ Wolf on stage,” suggested Brian Jones to the presenter of U.S. TV show Shindig! in 1965, after the Stones had agreed to appear only if the show also booked Wolf and Son House, a ballsy move in a country where the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet been passed.
The issue is being raised again because, for the first time in their career, the Rolling Stones have elected to release an album consisting entirely of blues covers. A skeptical voice might suggest it finally confirms what their last album, 2005’s lacklustre A Bigger Bang strongly hinted at: that, as songwriters at least, the Jagger/Richards partnership is out of juice. A less cynical observer’s first thought might be to wonder why they didn’t do something like this sooner: the opening cover of Buddy Johnson’s “I’m Just Your Fool” comes barreling out of the speakers, sounding more raw and vibrant than the Stones have done in years.
Their second thought might be that Blue & Lonesome sounds surprisingly like Mick Jagger’s show, which rather goes against the commonly held belief that Keith Richards is the band’s R&B heart and Jagger is a fashion-conscious dilettante who’d have the Stones recording tropical house with Kungs and Seeb if he thought it would make them seem relevant. You can see how that notion came about, but while there are fantastic contributions from Richards and Ronnie Wood – the grumbling twin guitars of “Little Rain”; the taut interplay that powers “Hate to See You Go”; and, especially, the woozy, chaotic backdrop they conjure on a version of Lightning Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues” – it’s Jagger’s voice and harmonica that really drive Blue & Lonesome. At his least inspired, Jagger can sound like a man who isn’t singing so much as rearranging a well-worn series of mannerisms and tics, but here his vocals are extremely powerful and genuinely affecting, as if he’s digging deep within himself to find the emotions to fit the material. You expect him to be able to summon up the kind of swaggering lubriciousness requisite for “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing,” originally recorded by Little Johnny Taylor, which he does; more surprising is how authentically wracked he sounds on “All Your Love,” “Hate to See You Go” and the Memphis Slim-penned title track. There’s a really striking moment on the last one where he sings the line “Baby please come on home to me,” drawing out the word “please” into a chilling, agonised, vulnerable howl.
Moreover, you wonder if Jagger’s fashion-conscious dilettantism might account for the album’s sound: Blue & Lonesome feels very much a record piloted by someone who’s heard the White Stripes or the Black Keys, or the raw blues releases on which Mississippi label Fat Possum’s reputation was founded. The sound is appealingly visceral and live: the guitars are spiky and slashing, the drums punch hard, everything – including Jagger’s voice – is coated with a thin, crisp layer of distortion, as if the band are playing at such volume and with such force that the microphones can’t quite take it.
The obvious point of comparison would be the recordings the Stones made in the brief period between their rise to fame and the full flowering of Jagger and Richards’ songwriting. But if at least one track, a version of Willie Dixon’s “Just Like I Treat You,” might have slotted neatly onto 5 x 5 or The Rolling Stones No. 2, for the most part Blue & Lonesome doesn’t really feel or sound much like the stuff the Stones made half a century ago. They wouldn’t have thanked you for saying it, but back then, their skill lay in a perhaps unwitting ability to transform gnarled rhythm and blues into thrilling teen-friendly pop: listen to Muddy Waters’ original version of “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” next to their 1964 version and you hear a very grownup, slow-burning record, made by a man already in middle age, converted into something urgent and wired, the soundtrack to an overexcited fumble in the back of a Ford Anglia.
Now in their 70s, men who by anyone’s standards have lived a bit, they frequently seem to tap into something deeper about the music: they really inhabit its sense of hard-won experience. The last thing you hear on the album, after a version of Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” crashes to a halt, is Mick Jagger asking uncertainly “was that OK?” He sounds like a man who’s still slightly awed by this music in its original form; who knows he’s still paying homage to artists he can never entirely grasp, whatever Keith Richards thinks. But the answer to his question is an unqualified yes: it’s more than OK, which is not something you can say about many Stones albums over the last 30 years.