Can you envision/a brother who ain’t dissin’?” asked A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on the rap group’s 1990 debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, a breakthrough in what became known as Afrocentric hip-hop. It was a refreshing idea then, and Quest pulled it off with panache; their raps were gently wry, while their jazzy jams proved that dope beats don’t need sledgehammer impact to kick ass. In today’s hip-hop climate, where hardcore acts are practically defining the whole genre — at least commercially — it’s an even better idea. Which is why it’s a shame to see Quest partially abandon it on their new album, Midnight Marauders.
Not that the Tribe are suddenly on the gangsta tip — they still make nods to positivity, mostly on the between-songs segments featuring the record’s host, a computerized female voice. But the Tribe are now going for a harder-edged verbal attack, or at least they must think so — the lively wit of past songs like “Skypager” and “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” is replaced with tired boasts like “I like my beats harder than two-day-old shit.” They try to rationalize the niggas dropped all over this album with the tortured “Sucka Niggas” and concoct a convincing litany of urban and personal woes on “Eight Million Stories.” But instead of coming off impassioned, the Tribe only sound cranky. The music still has its beguiling moments, but nothing approaches the revelatory jazz stylings and laid-back cool of past work. Sadly, the schizzy Midnight Marauders suggests that at this point the band might more accurately be called A Tribe Called Flounder.