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 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 and Tip over the groups hiatus, but regardless of the rumors, they would return in 1996 with 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 called themselves The Ummah, producing (except for one song)the entirety of BRL. They would also invite Q-Tip’s blood cousin, Consequence (who I first heard rhyme on…) to rap 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 (eventually getting 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 Tribes 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 was mixed, as some didn’t like the changes in the group and felt they were getting away from their original sound chasing commercial success.
As I’m sure you’ve already formulated, this is the third component to my hip-hop summer 1996 soundtrack. Is it just me or are the electric people on the album cover brolic and curvy
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 actually 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 comes to an end 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 turned into a gangsta. Over an instrumental that screams “Serious content coming!”, 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 and Phife saying, “Oh shit, son…damn!”, leaving the listener to formulate their own opinion on the results of this 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 song has an underlying aroma of commercial intent, but I’ve always enjoyed 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 groove 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, it doesn’t tell you how to raise a child or treat a wife,” but I also have a version of this song (that I pirated off the dark web many moons ago, along with a few dirty cyber viruses that killed my now deceased lab top, rip) where Tip says “Hip-hop could never be away of life”, which puts a different perspective on that bar, and both perspectives somehow ring true. I’ve always like this one, 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 instrumental that sounds like the peaceful twin to the “Crew” instrumental. Short, sweet and scrumptiously soothing vibes.
What Really Goes On –
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 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 and 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.
Listening to BRL today is kind of bittersweet, as it marks the start of the ending of my favorite hip-hop group of all time.For all the BRL critics Jay-Z theory (Do y’all listen to music or skim through it? Maybe the singles give off a crossover vibes as they both after more polished commercial sounding instrumentation and and as their fellow Native Tongue bredrin Trugoy would say “r&b bitches” singing on the hook. I like the addition of J-Dilla to the production fold and sonically the new sound feels like a natural progression for the Tribe Dilla’a presence seems to pull Tribe out of their jazz ?? and explore and grown on their musical taste… The addition of Consequence was a nice addition and his finds his chemistry with Tip and Phife ….BRL would maintain its jazzy sensibilities…