A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes And Life (July 30, 1996)

By July of 1996, it had been almost three years since A Tribe Called Quest had blessed the world with one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time (see Midnight Marauders), which was also the back end of arguably, the greatest two consecutive album combo by an artist of any genre (with The Low End Theory being the first half). There had been rumblings of possible beef between Phife (who had moved to Atlanta sometime after Midnight Marauders was released) and Tip during the group’s hiatus, but regardless of the rumors, A Tribe Called Quest would return intact in ‘96 to release their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes And Life.

For Beats, Rhymes And Life (which is a great album title, by the way), Tribe would make some notable changes to the team. On the production side, they would add J-Dilla to the fold, as he, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad would collectively call themselves The Ummah, producing all but one track on BRL. They would also invite Q-Tip’s blood cousin, Consequence (who I first heard back in ‘93, rhyming over “The Chase II” instrumental, which was a B-side joint on the “Oh My God” single, and I immediately thought he sounded like a lisped version of AZ) to rhyme on a handful of the album’s tracks. BRL debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, would earn a gold plaque two months after its release (and eventually certified platinum) and would be the group’s fourth consecutive album to become certified gold or better (it’s also worth noting that all six of Tribe’s albums have been RIAA certified gold or better). Along with its commercial success and accolades, BRL also received mostly positive reviews, but it’s reception on the streets were mixed, as some didn’t like the changes in the group and felt they were getting away from their original sound to chase commercial success.

As I’m sure you’ve already formulated, this is the third component (along with It Was Written and Stakes Is High) to my summer of ‘96 soundtrack. I’ve always loved this album, but I’ll revisit it with an open mind and see if the harsh criticism it received was justified.

Random thought: Is it just me or did the electronic female tour guide on the album cover get thicker since the Midnight Marauders sessions?

Phony Rappers – The first song on BRL finds Tip, Phife and Cons calling out overzealous inspiring emcees aka phony rappers. The first verse consists of Tip “fuckin’ up the head” of a Puerto Rican kid who challenges him to a battle on the train, before Phife puts the “verbal assault” on some chump at the mall who doesn’t think he’s worthy of his occupation. The fellas then get off a second round of venting, with Consequence jumping into the mix. Tip, eloquently provides the moral of the story with one simple line: “Just because you rhyme for a couple of weeks, doesn’t mean that you’ve reached an emcee’s peak.” The Ummah’s colorfully jazzy soundscape compliments the fellas lighthearted content, perfectly. The song ends with a snippet of a speech from an uncredited speaker, and I’ve never been sure of its context or purpose.

Get A Hold – The track begins with a haunting vocal snippet that is quickly joined by a thick bass line and bangin’ drums to create a dark hypnotic groove. Tip gets his first dolo joint of the evening, attacking the monster backdrop like “a rhymin’ ass creature,” spittin’ sharp bars and dropping plenty of gems along the way. This is an underappreciated mammoth of a banger that has Dilla’s genius written all over it.

Motivators – Phife, Tip and Cons embrace this cool little diddly of a beat by letting their hair down and having some fun, while, humbly, proclaiming their prominence in hip-hop. Phife sums up the song perfectly on its opening bars: “This here groove was made for vintage freestylin’, feelin’ like I’m chillin’ on a Caribbean Island.” I’ve never been to a Caribbean Island, but if this song matches its vibe, I’m down to go.

Jam – Over scorching hot organ chords and an ill guitar loop, Tip, Phife and Cons pass the mic around like a blunt, as the trio take turns sharing the happens of a hot summer night, full of partying and drinking. The party quickly ends when an argument leads to some dudes pullin’ their straps, which in turn leads to the police (aka Jake) responding. The song ends with a drunken Q-Tip rambling on to his crew about being tired of the same old shit (“I’m twenty-two years old, and I get crazy high every time I go to a party, man…and this stupid shit be jumpin’ off, man. I can’t have this no more…I’ve gotta find something new, man.”), which bleeds into the next song.

Crew – This song will always be etched in my memory as the time Q-Tip showed the world his gangsta side. The earnest and tense feel of the instrumental prepares the listener for the pending drama: Q-Tip catches his, so called, homie kissing his wife, which forces the Abstract Poetic to put down his peaceful pen and angrily pick up his gun, letting off three shots, that the listener is left to believe we’re aimed at Mr. and Mrs. Loose lips. The song ends with a bunch of screaming, leaving the listener to formulate their own opinion on the results of said ordeal.

The Pressure – Tip connects poppin’ drums with an intoxicatingly funky bass line, while Ali Shaheed Muhammad provides sharp cuts and scratches during the song’s intro. Most of Tip’s verse sounds like it could be Tribe’s mission statement and Phife continues to focus on eating up rival emcees with his. I’d say the fellas are handling the pressure pretty well, as they deliver yet another dope track.

1nce Again – This was the lead single from BRL. Tip and Phife revisit the hook from their classic record, “Check The Rhime” and invite Tammy Lucas (whose voice you probably recognize from the Heavy D record (and later, her own record), “Is It Good To You”) to sprinkle her vocals on the track, while the duo talk their shit and have a little fun on the mic. This record has always had an underlying aroma of commercial intent, but I still enjoy it.

Mind Power – Tribe kicks off the second half of BRL with this ultra-mellow smooth track that Tip, Cons and Phife calmly and effortlessly, dismantle. This irresistibly joint sounds like the epitome of what A Tribe Called Quest had stood for since 1990.

The Hop – This is the lone track on BRL that The Ummah didn’t produce. Instead, Rashad Smith (whose name has popped up on this blog quite a few times in the past) gets the credit for this melodic bop that Tip and Phife split mic time over. This infectious groove feels custom made for a summertime day party and it still sounds great today.

Keeping It Moving – The drunken rant that Tip went on at the end of “The Jam” is brought back and continues on at end of the last track and the beginning of this one. Then a stank twangy guitar riff and those familiar poppin’ drums come in to backup Tip, who shares his stance on the East Coast/West Coast beef that was almost at a boiling point by the time BRL was released: “Let me let y’all brothers know I ain’t no west coast disser, another thing I’m not is a damn ass kisser, so listen to my words as I set things straight, I ain’t got no beef, so don’t come in my face” Side note: On the album version of “KIM,” Tip starts the second verse off by saying “Hip-hop, a way of life,” but I also have a version of this song that I pirated off the dark web many moons ago (which also came with a few dirty cyber viruses that killed my now deceased labtop…rip) where Tip says “Hip-hop could never be a way of life”, which puts a different perspective on that bar. I’d love to ask Tip about that line and his true feelings on it. Regardless, I’ve always liked this record, as it makes for an enjoyable album cut.

Baby Phife’s Return – Q-Tip’s already had a handful of solo joints on BRL, so it’s about time that Phife gets one off too. Over an understated dark backdrop (created by Tip), Phife stays in emcee mode and gets off some pretty sharp bars in the process: “Kid, you know my flavor, tear this whole jam apart, fuck around I’ll have your heart, like Jordan had Starks’, while you playin’ hokey pokey, there’s no time to be dokey, cause I come out to play every night like Charles Oakley.” The song title makes the song sound grander than it actually is, but it’s still a solid joint.

Separate/Together – Tip gets off a quick verse about unity over an airy carefree melodic instrumental. Lyrically and musically, if “Crew” were yin, this record would be its yang.

What Really Goes On – I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but Tip’s rhymes on BRL have been razor sharp, and he continues on that path with his final solo joint of the evening. Tip plays the builder and destroyer as he completely annihilates his dope mid-tempo backdrop (I love the seductive horn loop laced throughout the track). My only qualm with this record is the heavy censoring. I mean, did they really need to censor “hell”?

Word Play – Tip, Phife and Cons take turns calling out a word, then spend the rest of the bar giving the definition of said word/phrase, all over an extra creamy instrumental. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks on BRL.

Stressed Out – The final song of the night was also the second single released from BRL. Tip and Cons use this one to discuss the stresses of life that attempt to “take you off the right path” over a cute crispy clean instrumental that becomes pretty, once Faith Evan’s beautiful vocals bless the hook and adlibs. The single/video version of this song includes a completely different second verse than the album version, replacing Consequence’s verse with a Phife verse. This one always felt a bit contrived and is easily my least favorite joint on BRL.

On the same Jay-Z record that Nas infamously (and accurately) stated that Eminem murdered him on his own shit (see “Renegade”), he asked a profound question that I’d like to pose to those who shit on Beats, Rhymes And Life: “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”

I’ll admit, the two singles released from BRL (“1nce Again” and “Stressed Out”) had commercial sensibilities and sounded more designed to please the ear of the casual hip-hop fan than the dedicated ones. But if you go beneath the surface of the poppish music and r&b vocals on the singles, you’ll find an abundance of quality music on BRL. Lyrically, Q-Tip is as sharp as he would ever be, while Phife still had witty bars left in his arsenal, and the addition of Consequence (who proves to be a formidable emcee) serves as the perfect bridge between Kamaal’s philosophical approach and the battle focused Phife Dawg. With the presence of J-Dilla on the production end, the music on BRL sounds mildly more progressive than what the listener was accustomed to hearing from Tribe, but they still maintain their jazzy hip-hop integrity within the new clean and sheen sound. Yes, the popping drums get a little repetitive and BRL may not be as groundbreaking or a hip-hop landmark like The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders, but it’s still a great album in its own right, from one of the greatest groups to ever do it.

Living with BRL these past few weeks has been bittersweet, as it marks the start of the ending for my favorite hip-hop group of all time. Tribe would release two more group albums, but unfortunately, due to house fires, squabbling amongst group members and ultimately, death, neither project felt like a complete A Tribe Called Quest album. Maybe the crumbling city and chaotic scene behind the weary electronic tour guide struggling to plant the ATCQ flag in the ground on the album cover was foreshadowing the group’s fate.


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11 Responses to A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes And Life (July 30, 1996)

  1. Anthony says:

    Without even reading this post…

    Can easily say as a Tribe fan this was the decline of ATCQ…

    More to follow when I have time

  2. kostyle112 says:

    After reading these 96′ hip hop album reviews, it really feels like this was the year of “out with the old and in with the new.” BRL was an awesome transition for ATCQ, but it felt like they were beginning to conform to hip hop instead of pioneering it. Great album, although at first I was offended by the addition of Consequence. I would have preferred more Phife appearances, but I’ll assume the uncertainty of Phife’s presence in the studio most likely lead to the addition of Consequence.

    • Anthony says:

      Phife fell off lyrically imo…and his lack of studio time and moving away from the group showed heavily on this album…. Thanks for the beats rhymes and fights documentary that showcased how everything went down….as a tribe fan I was disappointed.

      But RIP phife dawg though..one of the greatest to ever do it

  3. kostyle112 says:

    “the back end of the greatest two consecutive album combo by an artist of any genre” I might agree with your statement. You should look further into this claim, could be an awesome write up. Outkast might give ATCQ a run for that money….wonder if there are any other groups with a similar one two punch?

    • Anthony says:

      I’ve always seen the ATCQ from the first album to the third album…as an ascension…
      They started with great (peoples instinctive…) to greater (low end) to even greater (midnight marauders). Only to decline and descend with BRL and then the TLM…. It was like a climax then decline with their discography …

      Outlast on the other hand took off where ATCQ left off..in no way would I say Kast was a more Monumental group then Tribe…
      But I challenge anyone to listen to the Outkast
      Discography from 1st album (southernplaya…) to the 5th(speaker box/love below) and tell me that…those albums in succession are not the greatest ascension of a any group in the history of rap…
      .cause every album they got better lyrically and musically…they got way more creative and more diverse…and every album damn near topped the last before it …none of those two albums sounded the same!

      And people wonder why Dre 3000 stopped making albums….cause i think even he knows what outkast did with those albums in that order….there’s no way they could ever top it….. imjustsayin’

      • deedub77 says:

        I agree that all of OutKast’s albums sounded completely different, and ATliens and Aquemini would be a great argument for best consecutive albums by a group, but there is no way Stankonia, Speaker/Love Below and Idlewild are overall stronger albums than ATliens and Aquemini.

    • Gang Starr; King Tee; EPMD; to name a few who had that one two punch

      • deedub77 says:

        All great considerations. EPMD had four consecutive great album in my opinion. Which two Gang Starr albums are you including in that argument? Daily Operation and Hard To Earn? Or Hard To Earn and Moment of Truth?

  4. Daily Operation and Hard To Earn

    • Anthony says:

      I would say Hard to Earn and Moment of truth… man tbh gang Starr is one of those groups that got better with time from the day they came out…. I wouldn’t say the The Ownerz (album) topped moment of truth though

  5. The Anonymous Nobody says:

    “What Really Goes On” has nothing written for it and it looks like you were just jotting down notes at the end of the review. Are you going to go back and do a rewrite?

    Anyway, this album gets a bum rap. It’s not The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders, but the fact that it isn’t is the only reason people claim it to be not worth listening to. Questlove said it best: If Tribe wasn’t moving the world with every new album, it was unacceptable. This album is great, with only one song I don’t care for (“Stressed Out”), but I understand why the changes would bother some people.

    I also don’t agree that Phife fell off or that the chemistry wasn’t there anymore. If it wasn’t, then that’s because Q-Tip wasn’t trying hard enough to keep it together. Between him inviting Consequence (who was green) on so many tracks, bringing in J. Dilla (which wasn’t a negative), having more solo tracks than he did on the last album and canceling studio sessions at the last minute, I could see why Phife felt like he was being pushed out. He even moved to Atlanta after Midnight Marauders because he thought the group was over. Then he finds out it isn’t, and things play out like it’s over anyway.

    The problems with Beats, Rhymes, and Life have more to do with the behind-the-scenes stuff than the actual music that was made. Those problems made this album more of a regression than a progression.

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