A Tribe Called Quest: Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive)

LESS INTROVERTED THAN De La Soul and less weird than the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest were always the populists of the Native Tongues crew.

Their music had a freestyle flavor that was as much about rap’s past (in street parties and MC battles) as its present (in studiocraft and hitmaking). Whether drawing early connections between hip-hop and jazz, sampling the Beatles and Lou Reed, giving young MCs a leg up, or collaborating with Deee-Lite and the Beastie Boys, they expanded definitions of the music and its community. If hip-hop had a Grand Ole Opry, Tribe could be the house band.

On Beats, Rhymes and Life, Q-Tip still flows like Rakim’s stuffy-nosed little brother, slipping over the beat here, bumpin’ against it there, and dispensing high-end rhymes like he’s spinning them in his PJs over breakfast. Phife, with a few new ragga moves, sounds tougher and more playful than ever, while guest Consequence tag-teams here and there to good effect. And as usual, the group represents with a sleight of hand that lets them get intelligent without ruining the party; on ‘Get a Hold’, for instance, Q-Tip turns a pitch for money-market accounts into a moment of genuine dancehall drama.

Beats is shot through with a new soberness; sadness, even. You hear it in Ali’s dark, stripped-down grooves — all snare crackin’ and low-end bass mackin’, usually with just a lonely little jazz organ or guitar riff for filigree. You hear it in the old-school nostalgia (‘Jam’), the new-school social realism (‘Crew’, a song capped by gunshots), the frequent put-downs of gansta-ism, and the absence of mad Busta Rhymes cameos. In fact, you get the sense that over the three fallow years since the group’s last record, they’ve been dealing with a real crisis of musical faith. “Hip-hop can never be a way of life / It doesn’t tell you how to raise a child or treat a wife,” raps Q-Tip on ‘The Hop’, which manages to rock the house anyway. He may be right, but with a lyrical depth that shows how much ground hip-hop has yet to explore, Beats, Rhymes and Life goes a way toward contradicting him.

© Will HermesSpin, September 1996

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