Inasmuch as the arch and arty New York hip-hop foursome A Tribe Called Quest exudes any enthusiasm at all on its debut album, that enthusiasm shows up mostly in the grooves, not the voices. The samples, nowhere as disjointed as those used by ATCQ’s overpraised comrades in De la Soul, alternate between gratuitous fun (“Walk on the Wild Side” and “La Marseillaise” by way of “All You Need Is Love”) and dreamy delirium (Earth, Wind and Fire and Ellington by way of Stevie-Wonder’s “Sir Duke”). But the real pleasure on People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm comes from a detailed mesh of instruments and incidental sounds. Jungle congas, philharmonic pianos, Art Ensemble of Chicago chimes and fluttering flamenco guitars are pitted against windstorms, crying babies, a pondful of frogs and crickets. Add turntable scratches that are nearly melodic, and you’ve got rap’s answer to the Environments series.
Yet at least as much as the members of De la Soul, who introduced Tribe chief Q-Tip in the song “Buddy” last year, the rappers of A Tribe Called Quest tend to mumble in understated monotones that feel self-satisfied, even bored. They’d like to be a HA! Network for your ears, but there are too many inside jokes, too many heavy-handed proverbs on the order of “In a society of fake reality/I’m nothing but a peg of informality,” whatever that means. The group does have its amusing moments: A tirade against wife beating escapes from the sermon syndrome through preposterous Barry White grunts; “Bonita Applebum” opens with a whiny parody of Prince’s love-sex mode; and a CD bonus track is called “Pubic Enemy.” “Ham ‘n’ Eggs” attains a smidgen of the greasy suppertable mood Fred Wesley and the JBs captured so spontaneously on 1974’s “Breakin’ Bread,” and Tribe’s gutbucket anticholesterol message gives it a cute twist. But the shaggy-dog stories (about eating snails in France, eating enchiladas and losing wallets in Southern California, even derelicts rambling through their own shaggy-dog stories) get tedious fast.
At least until it finally kicks in midway through side 2, this is one of the least danceable rap albums ever – there’s no forward motion. Sound effects or no, the backing tracks frequently add up to the sort of funkified quiet-storm pseudo-jazz you might expect young Afrocentric upwardly mobiles to indulge in when they crack open that bottle of Ameretto and cuddle up in front of the gas fireplace: plenty of sweet silky saxophones. Yet since the patter on People’s Instinctive Travels is hardly what you’d call pillow talk, it’s impossible to imagine how people will put this music to use. Maybe A Tribe Called Quest has hit upon the perfect middlebrow college-radio format for the early 1990s: Nutritiously Eclectic Adult-Contemporary Comedy Rap.