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What I’m listening to this week: A Tribe Called Quest

August 19, 2009

The Low End Theory – 1991

Iconic and superbly influential ’90s rap group A Tribe Called Quest‘s sophomore album The Low End Theory became the seminal record for conscious, lyrically concerned rap that was both clever and smooth.  The album is almost completely focused on Q-Tip and Phife’s lyrics and engaging interplay, with a structured mix of simple beatnik jazz horns, bass, and drums backing them.  The combination of those elements lends itself to a laid-back groove that is a serious departure from traditional rap and that laid down grounds for countless other rap/hip-hop acts that rejected hardcore gansta rap and focused on delivering messages.  Listening to The Low End Theory almost 20 years after the fact is a trip; endless references to Arsenio Hall (how disappointed the Tribe would have been if they’d known The Arsenio Hall Show would end in just 3 more years!), the general lack of cursing (so commonplace in rap that you actually notice when it’s not there), and the mere fact that the album is so jazz oriented all contribute to that classic “90s” feel.  

That doesn’t mean the The Low End Theory doesn’t still sound fresh in places and it’s full of first-rate rap tracks.  It begins with one of the best of them, “Excursions”, where Q-Tip earns his self-given nickname of the “Abstract Poet” by ruminating philosophically against a funky jazz backbeat and groove.  Phife takes his turn at the beginning of the next track, “Buggin’ Out”, then the two play off of each other, switching rhymes seamlessly. The Low End Theory does have a few themes to it as well.  “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” tackle the rap industry, those that control it as well as those who think they want to be a part of it.  Of those, “Show Business” is the most forceful and lively.  Not surprisingly, the subject of ladies is also present with “Butter” and “The Infamous Date Rape”, and while perhaps one-sided, at least aren’t as offensive in their attitude toward women as an arguable majority of rap tracks produced now.

Other key tracks are “Everything Is Fair”, a story of the streets type of song that skillfully employs a sample for the chorus, and the album closer “Scenario” featuring Busta Rhymes in probably one of the best rap cameos of all time that also helped him launch his own career.  But all through out, The Low End Theory offers witty and intelligent lyrics that are endlessly entertaining, quotable, and catch-phrase worthy.  The one fault with this album is that some of the references are very dated, meaning it isn’t quite as timeless as it is referential.  Nevertheless, the flows are nearly untouchable, so that and the lyrics more than make The Low End Theory worth keeping in regular rotation as a point of influence and as pure entertainment.

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