"Damn, we ain't prophets/And if you think so, you need to stop it." A Tribe Called Quest launch that fiery verbal projectile in "Get a Hold," a slamming, paradox-driven track from the group's near-flawless fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life. A denial that serves as confirmation, the couplet snaps and frames the essence of this collection: selfless social commentary sneaked in between immodest claims to greatness.
Elsewhere in "Get a Hold," rapper Ali Shaheed Muhammad tosses an elaborate baseball metaphor ("I'll send the mike out the park like Reggie Jackson/You'll be the minor leaguer who sees no action") that turns into a curveball of a challenge ("The brother well-prepared is the brother who will start"). It's a self-congratulatory gesture that's transformed into a universal truth. But that's still just the surface. Veer from the main plot to the secondary one, and we're told Tribe — which also include the rappers Q-Tip and Phife — are back "to redirect [the] vision" of positivity put forth in the late '80s by the Native Tongues school of hip-hop (Tribe, De La Soul, Queen Latifah and others) that got derailed in the '90s by the massive success of gangsta rap. Tribe criticize whack MCs for corrupting the art of hip-hop in pursuit of the dollar, but the real point is made when the entire jam coalesces into a point-blank call for integrity within and beyond the music. The trio offers the same message in "Separate Together" — which is ultimately a love song to black women — by castigating "vipers, phony rhymers ... money grubbers" and "beat dubbers."
Beats, Rhymes and Life is laced with a thread of allegory that runs through one song and is picked up in the next. For example, the chorus of "Motivators" ("We be the No. 1 motivators/Ghetto mentality and innovators") is echoed in "The Hop" ("Just a ghetto child trying to live a straight and narrow/Hopin' that my shit will pierce your dome like an arrow"). In both tracks, Tribe fold their own mythology into the daily struggles of ordinary black folk, lifting their fans as they lift themselves.
The minimalist, funky, guitar-driven "Keep It Movin' " and the crunching "What Really Goes On" lay waste to silly East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop rivalries; the breezy groove of "Mind Power" has an ass-swaying undertow that makes you forget that its message is also good for you; and the layered images of "Jam" smoothly unfold into an intoxicating short story about a lazy day filled with first-time blunts, parties and a good time that comes to a bad head. In "Crew," an album highlight, the burst of gunfire that ends the haunting tale of betrayal among friends is masterful, scoring an unexpectedly emotional bull's eye.
Unfortunately, Tribe slip some homophobia ("Yo' faggot asses don't want this," in "The Hop") into the grooves. Whether they are genuinely anti-gay or just playing with the words doesn't matter. For a group that has gone out of its way not to employ terms that are offensive or degrading to women and whose politics have always been ahead of the curve, this kind of shorthand represents exactly the intellectual and political laziness Tribe have always opposed.
Still, few hip-hop acts have so sharply captured the surreal quality that defines what it means to be African-American, a quality in which poker-faced humor and giddy tragedy play tag team with reality. Tribe make it look easy. Their rhymes are simple, not simple-minded, a distinction not many other bands can make. And while Tribe resist easy hooks, their blend of jazz, funk and R&B is itself irresistible. The honeyed female vocals in "Ince Again" and "Stressed Out" are an essential part of the mix, not just a commercial concession.
Spinning universal themes from an Afrocentric loom, with positivity balanced against subtly subversive street reporting. A Tribe Called Quest have managed to drag themselves out of the margins of hip-hop, where "nice" rappers are given polite props from folk who never really liked hip-hop in the first place.