1996, Music

Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996) by a Tribe Called Quest

I have only ever heard their debut (but I’ve seen the movie!) so I cannot really comment on how this is “darker” than their previous albums. (Though it certainly seems darker and angrier than their first.) It does seem like opinion is split between those who think it’s another fine album and those who think it’s their weakest to date. I have no idea.

For me, Tribe are among the best hip hop groups of the ’90s. (I can’t say “ever” because I have no idea. But I’m tempted.) But at least some of the extreme quirkiness I remember from their debut is tempered here. They’re still distinctly “them” but they are also a little more conventional or mainstream, perhaps… Perhaps, I really don’t know. (I think the presence of women singing R&B hooks on a couple of tracks, definitely makes the album seem more mainstream, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual rapping.)

I think the production might also be a little less quirky though, again, I am just comparing this to their debut and it’s been a while. Sometimes there are some weird touches that still make them seem quite unique, like that one song where’s that vocoder hook, or whatever it is.

I do feel like this album is far enough into their career – and into the history of alternative hip hop in general – that it requires a lot more context to assess than I currently have. It was easy with their debut, because there was basically nothing else like it. But, by 1996, there’s a whole lot of quirky stuff out there, and these guys are basically an institution. And I don’t know their discography well enough or the broader hip hop context well enough to know how good this is (or whether it actually is a disappointment, as some fans and critics think). So, there you have it.


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