A Tribe Called Quest and the Shadow of Trump
Anxiety, grief, and disunity get an airing—and a small antidote—on the hip-hop act’s remarkable final album.
A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Donald,” the final track on their first album in 18 years, is not about Donald Trump. Maybe. With playful DJ scratches, jazzy keys, and patois all radiating the warmth of friendship, the song is the group’s final goodbye to its member Phife Dawg, who died at age 45 from complications of diabetes earlier this year and who had claimed the nickname “Don Juice.” Still, you don’t call a song “The Donald” and release it three days after the presidential election without knowing the implications. You don’t sample a newscaster saying “Donald” over and over again without wanting to conjure up the billionaire who in his campaign’s final days made hip-hop yet another non-white scapegoat for America’s problems. You don’t create a song like this without wanting to draw a comparison between Don Juice and The Donald, or really, in this case, a contrast.
Great albums eventually transcend the conditions that surrounded their release, and the excellent We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, recorded over the past year, may indeed succeed at that. But first, it’s a document of its time. The hack of John Podesta’s emails revealed that the band’s brilliant frontman Q-Tip reached out to help the Clinton campaign; here, he makes multiple references to the glory of female leadership, a particularly poignant gesture now. There are plenty of other chillingly relevant lyrics inspired by the news in 2015 and 2016. And grief for the recently passed Phife (as well as his his own voice) permeates the ever-morphing funky medley even in its most joyful moments. But maybe the album’s deepest resonance, its great connection and clash with the moment, is the music itself: its celebration of intellect and teamwork, its collage of multiracial influence, its liveliness in the face of sorrow.
These virtues announce themselves in neon within moments of the album’s start, with “The Space Program” staging a verbal passaround game as balletic and energizing as an Avengers fight scene. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg work together for the chorus about working together, and then Jarobi White joins in the verses, his deep voice like a sharpie complementing Tip’s fine colored pencil. An extra layer of crisp rhythm adds in as the syllable count rises, but the display of complexity is more about emotion than technical impressiveness. “Mass un-blackening, it’s happening, you feel it y’all?” Jarobi asks. The answer has to be “yes” in the week when an election was decided by white turnout and white solidarity, but the song makes you feel the irreversibility of that outcome a little less than you would otherwise.
The album just gets more explicitly relevant from there. “We the People” lumbers in with sirens and synths before Tip mutters a chorus telling black people, Mexicans, Muslims, and gays to leave the country. The song’s title is either a statement of pessimism about our democracy or a call for unity, cemented by Tip’s observation that “when we get hungry we eat the same fucking food, the ramen noodle.” Next comes “Whateva Will Be,” whose slow-rolling funk features Phife lamenting black men being marked as lesser at birth—a sentiment especially heavy when heard from beyond the grave. It’s not the only time that words Phife recorded in life sting more now than they would have then: “CNN and all this shit why y'all cool with the fuckery?” he says on “Conrad Tokyo.” “Trump and SNL hilarity / Troublesome times kid, no times for comedy.”
Never is this protest and mourning a drag to listen to. Rather, the music embodies Tip’s coinage of “vivrant”—vibrant + vivacious—with a meld of live playing, programming, and samples that maintain a groove as the sonic palette shifts. Agitated electro sounds power the Andre 3000 showcase “Kids,” spacey reggae accompanies Tip imagining Phife’s ghost for “Black Spasmodic,” and Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” becomes earthquaking psychedelia for “Solid Wall of Sound.” The music’s ever-searching, dot-connecting mentality fits the lyrical outlook. Toward the end of the album, Tip offers his grand humane diagnosis of the world by using the song title “Ego” to refer to the quality that motivates him in the face of disrespect but also motivates tyranny. Smart.
My favorite track of the moment is one of the more subdued ones, “Melatonin,” which could exist out of time but is all the more powerful because it doesn’t. As the band moves from stop-start-stop-start passages to smooth reveries and back, Tip raps about anxiety keeping him awake. “The sun is up, but I feel down again,” he says, and for the song’s length the only remedies are sex and sleeping pills. He’s not exactly offering solutions here; he’s offering forgiveness for feeling the need to momentarily recharge. The miracle of the album is that it’ll help listeners do just that, even as it does quite the opposite of distract from the world.