Albums Of The Week

Album of the Week: A Tribe Called Quest say farewell with a blistering final album

Q-Tip (left) and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest.
Q-Tip (left) and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Rapper Common (above) is a Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist.
Rapper Common (above) is a Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest and rapper Common explore race relations and the African-American identity in their latest albums

The new albums by hip-hop luminaries A Tribe Called Quest and actor-rapper Common could not have come at a better time in American politics - the first African-American president is about to hand over the country's reins to a notorious firebrand, who has said he wanted to deport Muslims from the United States.

Both works grapple with the issue of race relations and the African-American identity in today's trying times.

We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service is a landmark release for A Tribe Called Quest, purveyors of the socially conscious hip-hop movement, which have birthed some of the genre's most artistic and thought-provoking albums in the 1990s.

Sadly, it is also their farewell release, coming eight months after co-founder Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor died of complications relating to diabetes.

As in their five previous releases, they elevate the genre with dazzling displays of brilliance, with songs as cerebral as they are emotional, politically and socially engaged.

  • HIP-HOP

    WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE

    A Tribe Called Quest

    Epic/SME

    4.5/5 stars

  • HIP-HOP

    BLACK AMERICA AGAIN

    Common

    ARTium/Def Jam

    4/5 stars

Backed by aurally rich and jazzy production, the smooth and layered rhymes are to be slowly savoured.

Mobius is a funky discourse that references 19th-century mathematician and astronomer August Ferdinand Mobius' geometric theories, the Illuminati conspiracy and even the two IGs, Iggy Azalea and Instagram.

On the song, frequent collaborator Consequence raps about the shadowy organisation supposedly running the world ("They say Illuminati and other ordeals/Is how my lawyer got me to avoid a raw deal) over a looping background that supposedly mimics the twisting shape of the Mobius strip.

Opening tracks The Space Program, We The People.... and Whateva Will Be are a triple whammy deliberating issues plaguing modern America, from police brutality to the oppression of minorities.

Q-Tip and Jarobi White draw parallels between space exploration policies and the gentrification of old neighbourhoods on The Space Program ("They planning for our future/None of our people involved") and take aim at president-elect Donald Trump's campaign promises vilifying minorities ("So all you bad folks, you must go").

Whateva Will Be bemoans the state of the music industry and commercial radio programme directors (PDs) who allow marketing to triumph over art ("Man, picture a PD lettin' good records play/On the strength of what it is, not the finesse of your biz").

The list of collaborators is as eclectic as it is impressive - guitars from Jack White and verses from rap's current crop of dignitaries such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Each brings his own distinctive touch, without taking the focus away from A Tribe Called Quest's unfettered brilliance.

The title is remaining members Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White's nod to their late compatriot, whose verses, recorded before he died, feature on the tracks.

Hopefully, the title will also inspire aspiring musicians to take over the mantle from Tribe.

With Black America Again, Common's 11th album, the Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist offers a rallying cry for justice and equal treatment to the African-American community.

The title track, powered by a refrain from soul legend Stevie Wonder, is blistering: "Black children, their childhood stole from them/Robbed of our names and our language, stole again/Who stole the soul from black folk?/Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke/And made the whip crackle on our back slow."

He pays tribute to women in The Day Women Took Over ("Mothers get medals for being courageous soldiers/On dollars, it's Michelle Obama, Oprah and Rosa") and takes aim at mass incarceration in Letter To The Free.

More than just big political statements, the rap numbers also get deeply personal - in Home, touching on spirituality and his yearning to do good, and showing his romantic side in Lovestar ("Love can be sick or medicinal").

Rain, featuring irresistible hooks from John Legend, sees Common taking stock of how far he has come as a rapper and poet.

His latest is a well-rounded collection that is as heartfelt as it is vital.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Hip-hop for a cause'. Print Edition | Subscribe