A Tribe Called Quest are the long-running kings of mellow, low impact hip-hop, partly because they don’t have any competition; no other rappers have worked so hard for so long to be so subtle. Their fifth album, The Love Movement, bangs you over the head with its subtlety, a constant bombardment of the not particularly noticeable. Q-Tip, Phife and Ali still keep their distance from the flash that’s been hip-hop rocket fuel from Sugarhill to Bad Boy — you’ll never catch them waving their Rolies in the sky or sampling dodgy Eighties hits. Instead they play it safe with their formula of modestly jazzy beats and laid-back rhymes, betting low on their own talent, and, as a result, The Love Movement is not much fun even when it’s pretty good.
The overall lyrical theme is love, with the romantic “Against the World,” the lecherous “Hot 4 You” and the friendly “Find a Way.” The songs are sweet and sincere, even if the Tribe are too polite to cut loose — it’s like getting an obscene phone call from Al Gore. The Love Movement is livelier when it ditches the love concept for the Queens pride of “Give Me” (with Noreaga) and the Sugarhill redux of “Rock Rock Y’all.” Best of all is “Steppin’ It Up” with Busta Rhymes and Redman, two rappers who aren’t shy about flashing that flash. Redman utters perhaps the most tasteless hip-hop boast of the year: “I went through more trees than Sonny.” (Needless to say, it rhymes with “money.”) But for all their crassness, Busta and Redman have enough manic vocal energy to blow their hosts away; you feel as though you just found a Mallo Cup in your bowl of granola. The mature, accomplished niceness of The Love Movement proves that the Tribe still have the skills — they’re just short on thrills.