A Tribe Called Quest is getting set to release their final album this Friday, so I decided to go back and revisit one of their best records, The Low End Theory. Coming off their debut People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm, released in 1990, the very next year the group dropped their sophomore effort. Phife Dawg (RIP) took on a more prominent role on this album and the group in general stepped up their game. We’ve heard time and time again the idea of the sophomore slump (where artists put out a strong debut and then slip a bit when the second album comes out), but with A Tribe Called Quest, we got a front-to-back classic.

There’s a lot going on with The Low End Theory, the summary version is that beginning from the second you hear the bass come in on “Excursions” all the way to the hook that closes the album on “Scenario,” there isn’t a skippable moment on this album. Q-Tip’s laid back flow eases you into what the record has to offer, but don’t get lazy because the Abstract is giving us layers on layers of wisdom. “Listen to the rhymes, then get a mental picture/of this man, and black woman fixture/Why do I say that, cuz I gotta speak the truth, man/Doing what we feel for the music is the proof and…” The entire record is filled with social commentary, cheeky, humorous lines, all backed by minimalistic production.

We’ll get back to the production in a second, but for now let’s talk about some of the commentary on the album, especially involving love. One of my favorite songs on The Low End Theory is “Butter.” Phife takes the spotlight and waxes poetic on a couple different topics involving love. He starts off the track talking about some of his womanizing ways, but eventually Flo comes along and Phife tries to get his act together. As the verse progresses, we learn that Flo cheats on Phife with his best friend. The verse ends with Phife unfazed saying “She finally played me, but yo I’ll find another/Cuz I got the crazy game and yo, I’m smooth like butter.” In the second verse, Phife takes on gold diggers who didn’t mess with him before the fame and goes a step further talking about loving women who are just themselves. Phife’s verse and ability to create his own flow and cadence really makes me appreciate the vintage style of emceeing.

Tracks such as “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” have Tribe venting on their frustrations with the music industry. On “Rap Promoter,” Q-Tip takes the helm and talks on being involved in whack shows, not getting paid for said shows, dealing with groupies and more. On “Show Business,” we get the obligatory posse cut. Featuring Lord Jamar and Sadat X (of Brand Nubian) and Diamond D (from D.I.T.C), they all talk about the lack of talent and honesty in the rap industry. What I love the most about this album and Tribe in general is that they’re able to take on serious subjects and spin them to entertain us but still teach us.

I’ve spoken a bit on the lyrics, but 15 years later one facet that gets overlooked in some circles is the production on this album. Keep in mind this is 1991, but A Tribe Called Quest set what would become the foundation and palette for a lot of hip-hop albums that we know and listen to today. The production is minimalistic — the focus on the drums and the bass in turn pushes the vocals to be the main attraction. If you were to check just the instrumentals on this record, it all flows together, with jazz, funk and soul influences all over it. The choices they made on the production complement the vocals to perfection. The chilled but still poignant flows of Phife and Q-Tip take center stage on The Low End Theory.

Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you to at least hit play on this timeless classic. It’s a huge part of not just hip-hop history but black history. Hip-hop as we know wouldn’t exist without this album, and that is no exaggeration. Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad created a masterpiece that still makes a strong statement in 2016. Fourteen tracks extending to about 50 minutes I strongly suggest giving this a spin before Friday when the Tribe’s final album We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service releases.  

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