As I have said more times than I now count: I sure don’t know much about the history of hip hop. But, to the extent I know much about hip hop, I’m pretty sure I know that there wasn’t much out there that sounded like A Tribe Called Quest in 1990. Obviously I don’t know this for sure, but this is the earliest alternative hip hop record I’ve ever encountered.
As is true of most east coast hip hop from the ’90s, I definitely find the underlying music a lot more compelling than the west coast stuff of the time. There is stuff going on in the background that piques my interest when I get bored with the rap. (Which is often on hip hop records, though less so on this particular hip hop record.)
But the real reason people come to hear this record, of course, is the lyrics. And, if you have any sense of the evolution of rap lyrics – or, really, or song lyrics in general – you will not be disappointed. These guys don’t rap about the things other rappers rap about. This is perhaps best embodied by the albums first single – and most famous track?? – “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”. This song is famous enough that even I know it. (Though I did watch the documentary…) But it’s title gives you a really good idea of how unconventional the lyrics are. And I must say that is super refreshing.
Like basically ever hip hop album of the 1990s – save Illmatic – it’s too long. The end of “Push it Along” in particular drags but there are one or two other moments where you’re like “Really? This was necessary?” But I must say that I can take the length a lot more when I feel like I get it, and I feel like I get these weirdos most of the time. (That’s a feeling I don’t have much with hip hop.)
So, I am going to go out on a crazy limb and claim that I think this is probably one of the most important hip hop albums of 1990s. I don’t have any idea if it actually invented alternative hip hop, but I know it was a huge influence on that genre. But I don’t have any idea of what I’m talking about. So take it with a grain of salt.