Already 3/5 of the way through A Tribe Called Quest’s studio discography, today I will review one of the group’s less-celebrated albums, Beats, Rhymes and Life. After the success that was Midnight Marauders, ATCQ enjoyed a popularity they hadn’t experienced before. It also gave them a bit of freedom, musically and in their personal lives as well. Q-Tip, after converting to Islam, would be listed as Kamaal. He also began to produce tracks for other artists. Phife Dawg’s lyricism was featured on other songs, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad worked on other music projects, most notably R&B singer D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar.
While on tour, a friend of Tip introduced him to a young Detroit producer by the name of Jay Dee. After getting him acquainted with the rest of the group, it was decided that “The Ummah” (Arabic for “the worldwide community) would be a production group including Tip, Ali and Jay Dee, and would handle production for the rest of Tribe’s albums. A Tribe Called Quest would never sound the same.
Beats, Rhymes and Life was released on July 30, 1996, on Jive Records. Whereas Midnight Marauders was almost instantly loved, this album was met with mixed reviews. Released during the height of a conflict between rap and hip-h0p artists on both the East and West Coast, on their fourth studio album Tribe set out to once again tackle then-current issues. What critics loved was the new, darker sound, and meatier lyrical content. What critics didn’t love was the deviation from their previous sound; the jazzy aesthetic that made listeners want to dance while also appealing to the lovers of lyrics. Hip-hop artist Consequence, the cousin of Q-Tip, got shine on Beats, Rhymes and Life, and this added to Phife once again taking more of a backseat role. Despite the relative uncertainty that faced the group, the album was still certified platinum on October 27, 1998.
Beats, Rhymes and Life starts with “Phony Rappers,” an obvious ode to “Phony rappers, who do not write/Phony rappers, who do not incite.” It is on this track that we are introduced to Consequence, a 19 year-old rapper from Queens, who is also the cousin of Q-Tip. He is featured prominently on this album, leading some to believe that ATCQ had found a new member.
The first song that signaled a serious change for ATCQ was “Get A Hold.” Not only did the production sound very different from their previous works, but so did the lyrics. Tip’s flow sounded more controlled and its content, more socially inclined than it was on Midnight Marauders. Tip implores everyone within earshot to regain some semblance of composure in the name of humanity, rapping: “Lay your ego on the ground so that you’ll benefit/You can take these words and relay it to your click.” The new sound and flow continues on “Motivators.” Tribe aims to let folks know that they are indeed constantly moving, regardless of whoever else is stuck in place. Consequence drops great bars on this track, but the new format seems a bit odd.
Getting back to the party shit on “Jam,” Tip, Phife and Consequence take turns describing a “Friday afternoon in the middle of June” that finally ends with someone pulling a gun and the cops showing up at damn near four in the morning. After the song is over, Tip laments going out and getting wasted, women being bogus, and the spot getting broken up by malarkey. Call it a revelation, if you will.
Addressing the issues of friendship and loyalty on “Crew,” Tip speaks to the snakes that lay in the grass. After reminding one of his boys how he would have stopped at no length to hold him down, he discovers his wife and friend in a rather compromising position. “Allah forgive me, my thoughts is traveling to low desires,” Tip raps before the track eventually ends with gunshots being fired over a woman’s screams.
Funk music band Funkadelic was sampled on several Tribe songs, and this was the case on “The Pressure.” Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” was the lone sample on the sixth track of Beats, Rhymes and Life, as Tip and Phife each took a turn in telling us about the responsibilities they face as a group, in addition to being an innovator and savior of the genre, of sorts. More dope sampling can be found on the next joint, “1nce Again,” the album’s first single. The song featuring saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s “Untitled” and vibraphonist Gary Burton’s “I’m Your Pal” was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance By A Group Or Duo. Hype Williams directed the video. This was the first Tribe song to feature Jay Dee’s production, and Tammy Lucas wonderfully sung the hook.
“Mind Power” is one of those tracks where there seems to be some confusion in terms of direction. Tip’s lyrics are relatively uplifting, Consequence seems like he is auditioning, and Phife is still stuck in Midnight Marauders mode. Luckily, the three aren’t lacking, lyrically, and the production is incredibly smooth. Thankfully, “The Hop” is rife with dopeness. Seamless production is accompanied by one of the better lyrical efforts by Tip and Phife on this album. “You see you, your career is over like Johnny Carson’s/Get me vexed, I do like Left Eye, I’ll start an arson,” Phife spit at the beginning of his verse.
Q-Tip attempts to defuse some of the then-existing beef between the East and West Coast’s rap and hip-hop artists on “Keep It Moving.” “Yeah, we from the East, the land of originators/You also from the West, the land of innovators/The only difference of the two is the style of rap/Plus the musical track, this beef shit is so wack.” In my opinion, Tip was also taking a shot at record label execs with his “I ain’t got no time for shuckin’ and jivin'” part of the chorus.
While Phife may have felt left out, he was rewarded with his own spotlight on “Baby Phife’s Return.” The problem with this track is that it’s totally forgettable, from the production, lyrics and hook by the seemingly invasive Consequence, whose sound once again appears to be somewhat out of the place. I also doubt Tip was pleased with Phife rapping, “Just keep shit hotter than Death Row-Bad Boy confrontations” but I doubt Phife gave a shit.
Sometimes music with a message can be condescending, as it is fairly often articulated in a less than sophisticated way and is generally not self-reflective, or anything close. However, “Separate/Together” is one of my favorite Tribe tracks, regardless of album. On this track, Tip adjures men and women to, essentially, get their shit together. “We got to do or do, not separate, together/Got to move on through, not separate, together…” Tip continues dropping knowledge on “What Really Goes On.” Rapping over samples of James Brown’s “Make It Funky” and the Ohio Players’ “Pain,” Tip talks about wayward MCs and once again, the East-West beef. He even calls into question the state of our environment as a whole, lacing ears: “The Westernized world got our minds confused/You frontin’ on me, ak, then you don’t get bruised/The funny style cats, they be playin’ games like Chucky/Government officials shoot their same old/Made of devil agents aka the devil flunky…”
Finally, the triumvirate of Tip, Phife and Consequence gives a sound of musical cohesiveness on “Word Play.” Perhaps I love this track so much because Jay Dee was the sole producer, or maybe because the bars were short and sweet, with no ramblings, excessive boastfulness or what could be construed as remote pretentiousness. Because, all it really is, is word play.
The second single from Beats, Rhymes and Life, “Stressed Out,” features R&B singer Faith Evans on the hook. I’m sure you music heads can hear Anita Baker’s “Good Love” sample, and the video is certainly…different. Darkness generally isn’t a theme of Tribe, but the tone of the album’s finale is definitely that. Sadly, Phife’s verse that we heard on the video is not on the album’s final cut. Consequence did not disappoint, but it simply didn’t seem appropriate to not hear Phife on such a great song.
Even on the documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life was regarded by a few participants as less than stellar. This could probably be attributed to the new overall sound and lyrical matter, Tip’s newfound style, Phife’s reduced role, or the inclusion of Consequence, a move that now reeks of nepotism on Tip’s part. I would never call Beats, Rhymes and Life wack, but different. It was nominated for 1997’s Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, and I can certainly see why. As a collective, A Tribe Called Quest attempted to delve deeper into society’s ills, especially as they pertained to rap and hip-hop. In some ways, they definitely succeeded, and the opposite applies as well. Beats, Rhymes and Life was nothing short of a gutsy effort, despite the adoration and disdain it received.