Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
Last week, one of hip-hop’s greatest groups, A Tribe Called Quest, reunited on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and, with help from The Roots, performed their classic “Can I Kick It?” All four original members – Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi – performed together.
That song comes from their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, which came out 25 years ago (the reason for the reunion). They followed that up with two undeniable classics, 1991’s The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders in 1993.
When it came to their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life – a fantastic title and one that I have stolen on numerous occasions – the dynamic had changed. Phife had moved from New York to Atlanta. Instead of the beats being provided by A Tribe Called Quest (really Tip and Ali) as in the past, this album was produced by The Ummah, which consisted of those two as well as Jay Dee (a/k/a J. Dilla) and occasionally others. It wasn’t just behind the boards, either. Q-Tip’s cousin, Consequence, was now a member of the group, appearing on seven of the fifteen songs (and not even listed as “featuring” on the back cover). But all of that is secondary to the deteriorating relationship of Phife and Tip. Anyone that has seen the Tribe documentary knows the story well – and if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it immediately.
Instead of playful and jazzy – “party records but with a consciousness” as Mike D of the Beastie Boys put it in the documentary – Beats, Rhymes and Life was dark and moody. The sound was different, the personnel was different, and the chemistry was definitely different (“dead” according to Phife).
The album hit #1 on the Billboard 200, but it is often seen as the weakest effort from one of the greatest rap groups in history. After nearly twenty years, a breakup, the death of Dilla, the beef between Consequence and Tip, the reunions, and everything else, how does Beats, Rhymes & Life sound now?
I don’t remember the first time I heard Beats, but I imagine for hardcore Tribe fans (of which I was not one), it was weird to hear Phife going back and forth with someone other than Tip (or Ali or Jarobi). A newcomer. The fact that it was Q-Tip’s cousin makes it even more interesting.
Between albums, Tip and Ali had converted to Islam and that comes across because Q-Tip (now Kamaal the Abstract) is much more serious here than on previous works. He always had something to say and managed to dig deep on each album, but here his seriousness – which sometimes drifts into self-seriousness – becomes overwhelming and, as a result, much of his delivery comes across as lifeless and flat in his attempts to teach. Still, lyrically he’s as great as ever and his flow is dripping wet.
It’s clear that Phife was thrown off by all the changes happening in and around the group because he takes a step back from where he was on Midnight Marauders. Phife can be sensitive and emotional and his feeling that he had to compete for microphone time on his own group’s album clearly had an effect on his performance.
So for different reasons, both lead emcees had lost their upbeat playfulness, a trait that had gone a long way in making the group so beloved. Still, there are jewels to be found here. “Get a Hold” has a killer beat that is perfect for Q-Tip. “The Pressure” is three minutes of pure dopeness, beginning with a wicked series of scratches featuring some of Tribe’s most famous sounds followed by Tip and Phife flowing like the old days. “1nce Again” updates the chorus of their classic “Check the Rhime” while adding syrupy vocals from Tammy Lucas over a wonderful beat. It was no wonder it was the lead single – it sounds right at home with the rest of the group’s archives. “Keeping It Moving” is another Q-Tip solo, this time addressing the growing East vs. West tensions smoothly and in typical Tip fashion: “I ain’t no West coast disser/Another thing I’m not is a damn ass kisser.”
The back-end of the album is when things really get bogged down. “Baby Phife’s Return” starts off strong (“Fuck around, I’ll have your heart/Like Jordan had Starks’“) but Phife fades quickly and it’s hard to listen to the whole song.”Separate/Together” is only a minute-and-thirty-eight seconds and is also hard to sit through, probably because of the frenetic beat that is supposed to be layered but comes off sounding like a mess. “Stressed Out” is fine in a vacuum, but it has only Tip and Consequence (with an unnecessary Faith Evans chorus). Phife is nowhere to be found, though he would have a verse for the single release. It’s hard to not understand the dude’s paranoia when the last song on the album, the last thing fans will hear, has the new guy and not you on it. It’s clear the true story of Phife and Tip lies, as always, somewhere in the middle.
Much of the blame for Beats, Rhymes and Life has been laid at the feet of J. Dilla, not because the beats were bad, but because they didn’t seem to be Tribe beats. But that’s a false narrative. The sound of A Tribe Called Quest changed with each album and this was a natural progression, even if it was one fans didn’t want and one that didn’t suit the group. But Dilla wasn’t the only producer. Q-Tip was still controlling everything and Ali was still involved, so it was a conscious choice. It’s not like Dilla pulled a Suge and forced Tribe rhyme over dark, moody beats that they hated.
Consequence is a bigger problem. He felt like an outsider and, coupled with what was already happening within the group, it only made things worse. But he performs very well on the album and even outraps Phife on several tracks. As the great Thomas Golianopoulos wrote: “Consequence, who’d first appeared on a rare Tribe remix, was one of the reasons why Beats, Rhymes and Life was ATCQ’s worst album. While a capable rapper, he’s distracting on the seven songs here—it further muddled the group’s chemistry.”
Ultimately, the biggest issue with the album (aside from not employing the Oxford comma in the title) was the unraveling of the group, childhood friends growing apart, both personally and professionally. That is what informed the entire project, from the soundscapes to the rhymes to the entire vibe. Plus, there are multiple solo cuts so the cohesion isn’t as strong as before. In short, it just didn’t feel like a Tribe album.
Because of the group’s history and influence, Beats, Rhymes and Life could never stand on its own. But if you had never heard of A Tribe Called Quest and didn’t have the previous albums to compare it to and weren’t aware of the drama occurring off-mic, you would think it’s a very good album from a talented group that showed promise of something better.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.