The awaited return of A Tribe Called Quest is a mild success. We Got it From Here was recorded with all founding members, including the recently deceased Phife Dawg, with contributions from friends old (Busta Rhymes, Consequence) and new (Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000). Jack White is a notable presence, and even Elton John makes an appearance. It has the ingredients to be a triumphant reunion, and yet it never quite reaches its full potential.
For all its spirit and passion, We Got it From Here is regrettably tepid. The performances are great (Q-Tip’s flow is as casually brilliant as ever), the instrumentals are inventive, but ordinary mixing and flat production are holding everything back. You’d be forgiven for thinking the tracks sound so similar, but it’s merely the result of a safe, overly clean approach to the final formation. It’s an enjoyable sound, but one that becomes stale as you venture into the second disc.
The chemistry is there: Busta Rhymes said that Q-Tip and Phife were ‘vibing the way they did in the old days,’ and you can tell. Some verses are outstanding, a delightful reminder of the days of The Low End Theory, regularly retaining a sense of solidarity and understanding. The shadow of Phife’s death hovers over multiple cuts, and his legacy looms over the record as a form of inspiration.
It’s just a shame that not everything clicks. Whilst it’s impossible to recapture the youthful essence that made the early Tribe records so wonderful, We Got It from Here doesn’t exactly thrive in a more modern surrounding. It falls into a curious time zone — it doesn’t sound like 1991, but it doesn’t sound like 2016 either. The record has that classic Tribe vibe, which is why their return will likely be a delight for the majority of fans, but it lacks the key finishing touches for it to be favourably compared to the material of the early ’90s. Whether such a comparison is unfair or not, it is the unfortunate truth. The final Tribe album is good, but not great, and it’s difficult to shake off that sort of irrational disappointment.
7 out of 10
This was a pretty unique misfire. The songwriting, instrumentation, and performances are super solid, but the production holds them down and smothers them with a wet blanket. Songs sound squashed. The energy implicit in them never reaches my ears. What often ought to be dazzling musicianship sounds totally pedestrian. I can’t stand blunt, compressed production, especially when the music it’s ruining is strong. Listens to this on earphones were particularly grating; inner-ear drones that bestowed tracks like “Solid Wall of Sound” with a highly unwelcome irony.
This isn’t to say the We Got It from Here is a stand-up work lost behind bad mixing either. It feels longer than it is, and it’s a solid hour. Enough of the samples and beats are colourless to make the album as a whole lose edge, and some of them are downright bad. The Willy Wonka sample is something right out of the Bon Iver school of subtlety. Are memes high art now?
I don’t feel like I’ve truly heard the album. Only a handful of tracks break through the malaise, and even they could sound so much better than they do. If We Got It from Here was half as long and totally remixed, it might be one of the dark horse releases of the year for me. But it’s not, so it’s not. Instead it’s a drifter. By the end of my first listen I was so far removed from what was going on that I’d started watching videos of Ed Balls dancing. That reflects badly on somebody, and I refuse to take sole responsibility.
6 out of 10
A Tribe Called Quest haven’t released a studio album since 1998, so the anticipation for We Got It from Here, their latest and final album, was understandably high. Right from the opening track “The Space Program”, the vocal delivery goes down very smoothly, sitting on top of similarly smooth instrumental that glides along effortlessly. It all feels fresh while maintaining a style that feels synonymous with the ’90s, with seamless transitions between each vocalist and verse and instrumentals that, for the most part, explore and evolve in each track. It’s all very glossy, and it feels like the gloss has been introduced in the production.
Unfortunately, this is where We Got It from Here unravels, with the listener only needing a few tracks to realise it all sounds a bit alike despite the exploration and evolution previously noted. Dynamics feel crushed, the silky vocal delivery merges together with instrumentation of similar frequency, and what results is an album that doesn’t hold a listener’s attention. Things only dip on the second side as instrumentals become sparse and less exploratory, and in a few cases sound like standard freestyle instrumentals. While they do rise out of this dip, by the hour mark you’d be forgiven for having switched off. It’s a shame, because it’s clear that there is a sense of raw energy and talent here, but it’s also evident that the album has been created in an expensive studio rather than on a cheap tape deck, and that’s despite the clumsy sample at the end of “The Space Program” that continues to jar on me with successive listens. To be clear, it’s fine to use the professional resources available, but showing them off in the final product is not always a good addition.
There is certainly some good music to be had here, with the middle portion of the album (the latter half of the first side) containing the best moments of the album. There are some great features too, notably from Kendrick Lamar and Jack White, which add their own zest to their respective tracks. Despite some reservations, this is probably still the parting gift fans were looking for. Take a listen, you’ll probably enjoy it, especially in the background.
6 out of 10