A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite hip hop group. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and sometimes Jarobi White, make up an incredible collective of musical talent; they are pioneering tastemakers that shifted an entire genre in the early 1990s. Tribe?s laid-back, jazz-based sampling and Q-Tip and Phife?s easy yet engaging back-and-forth rendered the group, by the (first) end of their combined career, one of the greatest of all time. That estimation has stood the test of the time, even in spite, or even because of, their comeback ?reunion? album, a trap some artists never get past, let alone do so spectacularly that the record deserves its place in the quality canon. In any event, I?ve ranked A Tribe Called Quest?s six, let me be clear, incredible albums, some of the best hip hop records ever made.
#6 ? BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE (1996)
Favorite track: ?Keeping It Moving?
BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE is not the best of the best, however. Obviously. Tribe?s fourth album was a marked change after the build of their first three. The Q-Tip-centric production shifted to the realm of The Ummah, a production team consisting of Q-Tip himself, Ali Shaheed, and Jay Dee/J Dilla, as well as Raphael Saadiq and D?Angelo at times. What that meant, specifically for BEATS, was what many critics described as a darker sound and deeper lyrics that weren?t quite as freewheeling as they were on the preceding releases. I don?t know if I could accurately describe BEATS as an immensely ?darker? album, but something was definitely off. There were still fun tracks, there was still radical experimentation yielding solid beats. But more than any other Tribe album, a slight malaise settles in to BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE, feeling just not quite as inspired as the rest of their discography. However, it?s an incredible testament to the quality of that discography that this, A Tribe Called Quest?s worse, is still better than the output of 90 percent of the genre.
#5 ? WE GOT IT FROM HERE? THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE (2016)
Favorite track: ?Dis Generation?
A Tribe Called Quest returned from an 18-year studio album hiatus with WE GOT IT FROM HERE? THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE, named by Phife Dawg. Apparently, the rest of the group didn?t really know what it meant, but they kept it. Any of that kind of confusion cannot be found on the record itself. Released just after Phife died from diabetes, WE GOT IT FROM HERE is a remarkable return from a legendary group. It has two of their best songs, period: ?Dis Generation? and ?Movin Backwards.? But the overt experimentation on the album, which is more rock-influenced than anything else from A Tribe Called Quest, just knocks it down a few points for me. Collectively, however, the tone and mood set by Q-Tip?s evolved production methods feels like the group returned not from an 18-year hiatus, but another dimension. Some even see WE GOT IT FROM HERE as Tribe?s best, and while it?s clearly not close to that point for me, I totally get it. ?Thank you 4 your service,? indeed.
#4 ? MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS (1993)
Favorite track: ?Sucka Nigga?
MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS is held in such high esteem, alongside THE LOW END THEORY, that the pair are most often and interchangeably hailed as A Tribe Called Quest?s best albums. I don?t know how well I can even articulate why it?s not even higher than #4. It?s incredible. Groundbreaking. Fucking fun to listen to. Much has been chronicled about MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS, but I think what gets lost in the shuffle of A Tribe Called Quest praise is just how simply well-written their songs are. Sure, it?s implied in the elevation of their production methods and lyricism, but for simply getting your body moving and your head bobbing, the Tribe is exceptional. At this point on this list, that exceptionalism may very well just be measured quantitatively for me; I?ve asked myself, ?How many great bops are on this record?? to be able to order them in my mind. The answer just might be one less than the record ahead of it.
#3 ? THE LOW END THEORY (1991)
Favorite track: ?Buggin? Out?
While THE LOW END THEORY was majorly produced by Q-Tip, as was the case with A Tribe Called Quest?s debut, their sophomore effort is most notable for truly nurturing their group dynamic. Phife Dawg was more present on THE LOW END THEORY than he was on PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM, and even Q-Tip?s production evolved to incorporate a wider array of sounds than before. I think the best albums feel like ?concept albums? while evading the pretentious evaluations that would follow such an effort; what I?m describing is just a cohesive work of art. The scattershot releases of many artists can still be spectacular, but I?ve found the album that offers a range of experiences while staying rooted in a core artistic principle or aesthetic stays in my mind longer. That is the case with THE LOW END THEORY, an incredible album to sink into and to be enveloped by, with its layered sampling and jazz influences brought forward to support a still-fledgling genre.
#2 ? PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM (1990)
Favorite track: ?Bonita Applebum?
PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM is one of those incredible debut albums. While it might appear in hindsight that A Tribe Called Quest sprang out of the ?80s fully formed, the groundwork from within the Native Tongues collective had been laid a few years prior, in addition to Q-Tip?s literally sophomoric attention to production. PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS is the result of a more positive, funky, sample-based East Coast hip hop trend essentially started by the Native Tongues collective. But it?s a rawer, simpler album than what was to follow; the literal fidelity of the tracks seem more strained, Q-Tip?s voice reedier even than his typically high-pitched delivery. These aren?t criticisms, however; quite the opposite. PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS is a tight 64-minute-long album, ironically, filled with 14 simple, feel-good, and funny tracks. A Tribe Called Quest?s knack for experimentation was still clearly on display, however. Perhaps it?s only in hindsight, through the group?s own work or the music they inspired, that the record seems so simple or raw. Because there?s no doubt that A Tribe Called Quest came onto the scene with something wholly unique when they released PEOPLE?S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS at the beginning of a new decade, the decade following hip hop?s commercial rise that would see it creep past rock and roll as the American music genre.
#1 ? THE LOVE MOVEMENT (1998)
Favorite track: ?Like It Like That?
But it was A Tribe Called Quest?s button on the decade, what was to be the button on their shared career until 18 years later, that defines the group?s music for me. While it wasn?t to ultimately be their last album, THE LOVE MOVEMENT was released just months after the group announced they were breaking up. And how many artists can claim their last work to be their best, really? Well, I?m not sure Tribe considers THE LOVE MOVEMENT as such, but I do. At the end of the day, my ?math equation? ends with this record; half of its songs are top-tier playlist-worthy. What I mean by that is that much of THE LOVE MOVEMENT is ?never-skip? territory. ?Like It Like That? is one of my two or three favorite Tribe songs, but the track listing of the album reads like a greatest hits compilation, in my opinion. My unease with The Ummah?s production debut was settled by their work on THE LOVE MOVEMENT, a more subtle, and listenable, release. As I have said implicitly and explicitly, my #1 picks are the quintessential works by the various artists I?ve written about; they are, in my view, the best things with which to introduce someone who has never experienced the artists? work before. I think THE LOVE MOVEMENT is undeniably the best album-length experience A Tribe Called Quest produced; drop the needle and experience their universe.