A Tribe Called Quest: “The Space Program” (2016)
I love the sound and style of hip-hop, but go through long periods without listening to a lot of hip-hop.
In large part, that’s because its pervasive misogyny and homophobia can become a bit wearying, especially when it is concealed behind sentimental humanism (as in the case of someone like Chance the Rapper), presented as a liberal, inclusive protest vocabulary (as in Run the Jewels) or offered up as an unequivocal avant-garde gesture (Kanye).
Of course, “white” genres of music frequently display the same masculinist tendencies – they just massage it into a more palatable and acceptable tastefulness.
At the same time, the massive disenfranchisement of African-American masculinity means that there is a particularly macho push to hip-hop that often seems to aspire to all the worst and most base tendencies that drive gender inequality in late capitalist society.
You might say that a certain strand of African-American music aspires to a masculine entitlement that white listeners simply take for granted, as much as they might condemn it when they hear it articulated as directly and aspirationally as occurs in gangsta rap and all its affiliated genres.
While I understand the complexity of “criticising” rap music, as a white listener, on the basis of its misogyny and homophobia, there is also, naturally, a certain point beyond which I can’t go, or a certain element I have to disavow to enjoy the more inclusive and compelling sonic elements.
Still, I have a particular love for rap artists who take what might be called the Afrofuturist approach – instead of aspiring to normative masculinity, these artists recognise that normative masculinity is already a white construct, and instead opt for more radical forms of inclusion and diversity.
A Tribe Called Quest is one of the greatest of those artists – with the exception of blips like “The Infamous Date Rape,” their music has always retained the same pan-African and socially progressive sense of vision unveiled on their first album, which I still consider to be their greatest.
Sure, The Low End Theory is more canonical, streamlined and focused, but the very unkemptness and messiness of People’s Instinctive Travels is part and parcel of its visionary ambit, crystallised in what I consider to be the most visionary rap track of all time – “Rhythm.”
It’s so refreshing, then, to hear the Tribe return to some of that vision on their most recent release, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.
The first track, “The Space Program,” stands out as one of the greatest rap protest tracks of the last decade.
Like most Tribe openers, it functions to introduce the crew once again, as well as to introduce the posthumous version of Phife that haunts the album and gave it its title.
Some twenty-five years on, it’s clear that none of them have lost their flow, as they expound upon the state of America in a series of rap passages that are so dense that even repeated relistening is not enough to disclose their full meaning – they really need to be followed with a lyric sheet.
Yet that density is also part of the point – it imbues the flow with an incredibly concrete, material presence that blends it into the production to create the “Solid Wall of Sound” celebrated on the fourth track.
At the same time, however, these extraordinarily dense sections throw the main mantra of the song – “Let’s make something happen” – into even starker relief, as the Tribe use this compressed language as a platform for their clear, calm delivery of this one central necessity.
Like all great hip-hop phrases, this mantra doesn’t feel as if it is simply advocating action – it is action, language as action, as the words segue into the things they are describing to become embodied, living experiences.
At the heart of it all is the best hook on the album – “There ain’t no Space Program for niggas/We’re stuck here, nigga” – and yet it only occurs once.
In part, that’s what makes the song so compulsive – the need to return to that one, brilliant hook.
But it also makes the hook feel like a launching-pad for the song and its mantra, as well as for the album as a whole. In effect, the hook launches us into the band’s own space program, even as it decries the way in which African-Americans are excluded from American conceptions of the future.
In that way, the song makes a brilliant riff on the kinds of Afrofuturism that have become so prominent over the last decade.
While Afrofuturism isn’t necessarily a young artist’s game, it has become particularly associated with the African-American avant-garde in recent years. It would have been contrived, then, for the Tribe to simply replicate their own futurist visionary leanings on what Q-Tip has announced to be their final album.
Instead, “The Space Program” is content to identify the future as a white category and then work around that. In lieu of offering any really dramatic or emphatic futurist gesture of its own, the subsequent album feels as if it is dodging and weaving its way around an apparently inexorable future at every turn, a situation that feels more pressing and poignant in the wake of Phife’s passing. For a band with the Tribe’s wisdom, even futurism is not safe from the powers that be.
For American audiences, and African-American audiences in particular, I imagine that there is no album this year that captures the sheer sense of urgency – and the necessity of finding a comfortable space and groove within urgency – that characterises racial politics in the country today.
As so many commentators have noted, the album is eerily prescient of the recent election, treating Trump’s victory as a foregone conclusion and playing as a soundtrack to his first days in office.
Yet the album is even more prescient of the necessity for a collective spirit and sense of collective urgency on the part of the left, as well as the need to envisage a left spirit that is as inclusive and reparative as possible.
In the first line of the track, and the album as a whole -“It’s time to go left and not right” – we hear a beautiful echo of “Rhythm”’s injunction to “Continue, down a winding road…”
Poised between Afrohumanism and Afrofuturism, We Got It From Here charts that winding road about as beautifully as any other in the Tribe’s career, forming the perfect swansong to one of the most visionary rap outfits I’ve ever heard.
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