A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes and Life

3 out of 5

Produced by: The Ummah, Rashad Smith

Label: Jive

Coming at a particularly bifurcated point in Tribe’s career – post wild success (and thus subsequent hype) of their previous releases, religious conversion (Q-Tip), location changes (Phife) – the group’s fourth album bears marks of that weight and change.  Stripped down to mostly minimal beats with occasional samples, new production addition J Dilla definitely offers up some grooving and moody hooks, but they end up being of a like mind with most of the lyrical contributions: they hit their mark and hang there.  It doesn’t so much feel like the group had “lost” something as that they’d stalled: the chemistry was off, and moving forward musically just couldn’t happen.  The lyrical baton passed back and forth between Tip and Phife feels polite more than anything; using frustration with the phoniness of the (then) current rap game as a cover, you sense the duo avoiding a larger conversation.  Phife’s raps feel blunt and a bit bitter as a result; Tip’s feel too spread out and middling to make a point.  Consequence is there, trying to rile up some old energy, but he’s like a younger brother (or cousin…), just making noise in the background, with a bit of immaturity fueling his words to boot.

And now I’m guilty of lavishing solely criticism upon what’s not really a bad album at all, because it’s an album offered up by a group who’d previously done so much better.  Such is the curse of talent.  Beats, Rhymes, and Life is good: there’s no track I’d consider a throwaway, and occasional bursts of flow absolutely stand out.  As the group has later remarked, had this been released by an outfit that hadn’t had Tribe’s pedigree… well, no, it would still just be a not-bad release.  But the review would lead with that.