A Tribe Called Pop

"YO, PHIFE, YOU remember that routine/That we used to make spiffy like Mr. Clean?" Q-Tip asked his cohort on 1991's "Check the Rhime." I imagine the drill went something like this: Childhood friends ease into their Queens basement beanbags with grandpop's jazz collection, play the Socratic dozens till dawn, then distill the chemistry on tape with a perfectionist zeal rivaled only by an undersexed 21-year-old arranging his apartment before a first date.

A Tribe Called Quest was family first. Damned as "collegiate" in their collegiate years, they still went over with kids at the back of the bus. Unlike, say, the insurgent gat spray of NWA or the self-proclaimed political import of Public Enemy, the joys of 1990's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm lounged beneath cool surfaces. Without jumping off the player, the disk's minimalist MOR samples and Q-Tip's helium exhale of rap-it-as-you-think-it lyrics continued to mesmerize long after I'd worn out and set aside other classics of the class of 1989-'90.

Tribe's "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo"--sort of their version of "Parents Just Don't Understand"--made losing your jimmie hats on a road trip to Mexico sound like an epic moment of spiritual vertigo. It also summoned a bass-heavy, bongo-buffeted groove that wasn't the least bit pop, yet oozed safety for rap's white newbies. Tribe had more fun than future Native Tongues inheritors--do you ever need to hear your Roots CDs again?--and nothing in rock quite captured the buoyant interplay between longtime simpaticos like the aforementioned "Rhime." Kicking off Tribe's new postcareer retrospective, The Anthology (Jive), this high of 1991's The Low End Theory promoted Phife Dawg to full partner, making them the closest hip hop analog to, say, those comradely poetry punks the Minutemen. Tip's everyman street philosopher traded lines with Phife's everyman horndog, and both made it sound easy. That facile quality came to haunt them, and it haunts Q-Tip's post-Tribe solo debut, Amplified (Arista)--but let's hold that thought.

Unlike the US3s and Digable Planets of the world, DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad dropped his jazz bites for confusion, not fusion, capturing reggae's dissonance and dislocation without copping its stylee. But critics marshaled "subtle" as an epithet to describe the group when Tribe's mellow yellowed into slackness on their fourth album and first nonmasterpiece, 1997's Beats, Rhymes and Life. It's not surprising that the platter's more nuanced songs were left off Anthology in favor of Life's desperate-sounding R&B-play "Stressed Out."

Yet if Q-Tip's even weaker solo addendum sound just as decadent--and, I imagine, like a bowl full of pap to harder heads--it at least never panders. Sure, Busta Rhymes barks his piece on "N.T.," and the Tip-Phife verbal domino match is replaced with what Tip must imagine is his star limo party--a guest lineup whose sole moment of daring is a ridiculous appearance by Korn. None of this should surprise, coming from the original Sprite freestyler, the cameo king who grooved Deee-Lite's heart and reminded us that Joni Mitchell never lies.

But Tribe production compatriots the Ummah at least help the MC make his bounce crackle some. Surprisingly, Amplified coheres, with electro-blips answering one another across tracks without once biting Swizz cheese. Despite some cursing (what happened to Q-Tip's public promises to Heavy D, not to mention Allah, that he'd keep it clean?) the star still flashes a social conscience on the "let's talk about the... land we stole" chorus of "Things U Do." Only on the unlisted closer does he get autobiographical in the old way, recapping and punctuating the Tribal tale. "I'm still here, take notes," Tip boasts lamely, "and let hope float."

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