With last week’s crowning of the young rap duo Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” at #1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (a position it will likely hold again this week), Billboard was hailing the feat as the “No. 1 song the country needs right now.”
Well aside from the fact that its predecessor (The Chainsmokers’ “Closer”) had held the top spot for an astounding (and 2016-best) twelve straight weeks and the simple notion that “change was needed,” the music trade publication asserted that the “vital, quintessentially youthful song” was “quite welcome in this oncoming era of social conservatism,” a clear reference to the pending Donald Trump presidency which begins in two months.
The magazine added that Rae Sremmurd remains “decidedly new wave, part of Atlanta’s bumper crop of young MCs who are less concerned with paying fealty to hip-hop history than they are with blowing out rap’s formalistic constraints to their own thrilling, individualistic ends.”
Or basically, Billboard used a lot of big words and generous superlatives about an average 2016 rap-pop hit that capitalizes on two things that helped get it to the top: liberal references to music’s biggest band ever (the Beatles) and a viral YouTube video craze known as the Mannequin Challenge, where the song’s music is featured (and actually contributes to the song’s chart points each time someone streams one of the homemade videos).
But it’s a major part of that same hip-hop history that Rae Sremmurd purportedly ignores (according to Billboard, not me) which deserves an even bigger heaping of praise this week than the Atlanta duo’s pop chart triumph received a week ago.
The iconic hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, whose surprise (and very welcome) reunion was teased during an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in November 2015 and was consummated almost exactly a year later with an appearance on Saturday Night Live on November 12, debuts at the top of this week’s Billboard 200 album chart. The album, graciously titled We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, hits #1 twenty years after their last chart-topper, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, giving them the distinction of having the longest gap between #1 albums for any rap group (and most other acts for that matter).
But even more important than the statistical milestones achieved by Tribe’s We Got It From Here, is the juxtaposition it instantly creates by topping the album chart concurrently with the aforementioned #1 single by the youth movement known as Rae Sremmurd.
First and most obvious is the generational difference between Tribe and RS. Tribe has brought its brand of innovative, progressive alternative hip-hop to bopping heads since its first album (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm) dropped nearly 27 years ago in early 1990. The band’s popularity grew with each subsequent critically acclaimed release, including The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993), Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), and The Love Movement (1998) before their first breakup in ’98.
By contrast, the brothers who make up Rae Sremmurd (Khalif and Aaquil Brown) are essentially just getting started and weren’t even born when Tribe’s third album Midnight Marauders, featuring the classic single “Award Tour,” was released in Fall 1993.
But the biggest difference between the veteran act with this week’s #1 album and the duo with the #1 single is that this latest Tribe album has all the unique lyrical flow, musical innovation, production excellence and generally captivating qualities that the band embodied during its 1990s heyday, when they were the same ages as Rae Sremmurd are now.
I’d be surprised if a future blogger in, say 2036, will be saying the same of RS, perhaps through no fault of their own, but mainly because of the fact that it sounds so much like most of today’s other rap tunes, which is largely a function of the same cookie-cutter rap the labels are pushing down the younger generation’s collective throats.
With that said (and in full acknowledgement of my general affinity to ’90s hip-hop), it probably won’t come as a surprise to readers that I believe just about every track on We Got It From Here to be better quality hip-hop than the song “Black Beatles.”
Don’t get me wrong, “Black Beatles” is pretty decent in the context of its own generation and considering today’s competition, which these days includes heavy doses of mumble or otherwise incoherent rappers mostly meandering through lyrics set to a trap music beat. To be fair, “Black Beatles” is coherent enough, giving it the quality edge over recent songs by Rae Sremmurd peers like Desiigner, who mumbled his way to a #1 pop/R&B single six months ago with “Panda,” or the rapper Future who’s had three #1 albums since August 2015.
But you could drop the needle on almost any one of the 16 tracks that make up Tribe’s We Got It From Here and be treated to a musical hip-hop extravaganza. It’s truly the kind of album that makes you anticipate each subsequent track after hearing the current one. Whether it’s the clever sampling of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” that forms the foundation of the song “Solid Wall of Sound,” or the inclusion of some big-named guest rappers (including long-time collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence) who somehow manage to blend right in and allow their otherwise larger-than-life personas to take a backseat to the vibe that Tribe is creating, it somehow all works.
To be fair (again), upon first listen, one could reasonably conclude We Got It From Here sounds slightly dated, particularly considering the incorporation of old-school vinyl record-scratching sound effects, the number of featured rappers not of “dis generation” (to borrow one of the album’s song titles), and the jazz-influenced, looped instrument parts (mainly guitars, piano, keyboard) and snare drum beats that appear throughout, giving it a somewhat 1990s vibe.
This is not to mention some of the dated cultural references, like a mention of “racist waitresses up in Denny’s” in the song “The Killing Season” – a nod to a landmark 1994 racism lawsuit brought against the restaurant franchise which led to a huge financial settlement and major changes at the company.
Yet, even with those elements conspiring to make it not the most contemporary sounding album, as a whole We Got It From Here certainly doesn’t sound 20-year-old dated, either. Perhaps helping with this aspect is the inclusion of several of this generation’s hip-hop heroes, including Anderson Paak, Talib Kweli and the increasingly omnipresent Kendrick Lamar, which gives We Got It a more accessible, current vibe.
Notwithstanding the album’s superstar contributors, musically the new album works because it’s very cohesive, with most of the tracks seamlessly segueing into subsequent ones. This is effective because none of the songs are overshadowed by any one particular track. Even after repeated listens, I couldn’t find the one song that I’d say was “the hit.”
Indeed, few of the album’s songs come with that readily identifiable pop hook that characterize most of today’s hip-hop jams, like “Black Beatles,” making it anyone’s guess as to which song would be a likely radio hit for Tribe. But then, the band rarely had to rely on radio for its ’90s success – even when they were considered among the best hip-hop acts of their day. To wit, few of Tribe’s hits were true radio mainstays (although classics like “Award Tour,” “Bonita Applebum,” “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Electric Relaxation” were relative exceptions).
If I had to force the issue and pick the best first-single candidate from the new album, I’d go with “Black Spasmodic,” in which Q-Tip is clearly still at the top of his game spitting the song’s final verse. Other possible candidates for radio singles include “Kids,” “We The People” or the opening track “The Space Program” (which playfully includes snippets of the late Vincent Price’s “Thriller” rap and late actor Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory performance).
That said, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the late Phife Dawg (who recorded several songs before his sudden passing last spring) and original Tribe member Jacobi White (who returned for his first album with the band since their first in 1990), certainly provide enough good hip-hop here to show us what we – and hip-hop – have been missing for the last nearly two decades. Most notable is the alternating rap verses between Q-Tip and Phife, where the two perfectly complement each other just as they did during the group’s ’90s heyday.
And it’s ironic that this crowning achievement occurs today on what would have been Phife Dawg’s 46th birthday (November 20). It is then both a fitting tribute to their fallen band mate and a recognition of the ascension of future president Donald Trump that the album closes with “The Donald,” a song that clearly is a tribute to Phife and features the late rapper sharing verses with Q-tip and Busta Rhymes.
May Phife continue to Rest In Peace, for in his death he’s contributed to real hip-hop’s resuscitation with this new #1 Tribe album.
And with We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service reportedly being Tribe’s last album, I say to Tribe members, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jacobi White and Phife Dawg, congratulations and thank you for YOUR service!
…and for ensuring hip-hop still has a pulse in 2016!
(This article was partly inspired by progressively conscious brother and educator B. Creamer of Dallas, TX by way of Chicago, IL. Thanks for reminding me why “hip-hop has a pulse”!)
To see djrobblog’s exclusive list of all 159 of the rap/hip-hop albums to reach #1 on the Billboard 200, click here.