These days, the word “classic” is thrown around as loosely as a Nerf ball at a picnic. However, we at TRU consider classics to be something which stand the test of time and have a resounding influence on their respective fields. But how do albums considered classics sound to the ears of TRU’s young blood? Aaron J. McKrell was born in 1990 and we’ve convinced him to turn his scope on a classic from the rich history of hip-hop to view it through a contemporary lens in a weekly series we call…
Before I give my thoughts on The Low End Theory, I have a confession to make: I had previously never listened to an A Tribe Called Quest album. Forgive me for my youthful ignorance. Now, with that out of the way, let me get to the 11th installment of this series.
I wasn’t going in completely blind; I had heard a fair share of ATCQ songs before approaching The Low End Theory, so I was familiar with its sound. What sticks out to me most about producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s (and occasionally Q-Tip’s and Phife Dawg’s) beats is not the jazzed-out grooves, but how well these grooves work in conjunction with the hard-knock drums. Make no mistake; this may be jazz rap, but those drums will knock your teeth out.
On the rhyming side, Q-Tip and Phife have great chemistry. Much like the contrasting grooves and drums, Q-Tip’s smooth flow works well with Phife’s livelier delivery. The two have a chemistry that goes beyond track presence; the songs themselves are a good balance of duo songs and solo ones.
A fresh sound is all well and good, but without strong themes and concepts, sonic excellence will only get a group so far. Fortunately, A Tribe Called Quest is aware of this, and keeps the lyrics tight and the theme centered on positivity. They’re less fun being positive than, say, De La Soul, but the result is a heavy impact. Q-Tip sounds like he’s trying to inspire humanity with lines like “The thing men and women need to do is stick together/progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever.” However, they deplete any notion of sitting on a high horse when they refuse to let themselves off the hook. For instance, “Butter” finds Phife exposing how he was a player who got played in high school, lamenting his former attitude toward women.
As I said before, the “jazz rap” label doesn’t mean ATCQ isn’t authentically hip-hop. Quite the contrary; dope concepts and rhyme marathons on “What?” and “Buggin’ Out”, respectively, show these guys know their way around a block party. The two most outstanding songs on the album, “Check the Rhime,” and “Scenario,” are great showcases of Q-Tip’s and Phife’s lyrical abilities. The latter is also a great posse cut. A young Busta Rhymes sounds like he’s begging to be let off his leash on the track, but he tones himself down just enough to effectively fit in on the cut.
It’s not all gravy. “Vibes and Stuff” fails to stick out and is somewhat boring, while “Rap Promoter” is too vain for its own good. The song is one of ATCQ’s many references to the music industry, something that they are largely cautionary about.
This album, ATCQ’s sophomore record, was released in ’91. It’s very good and has the feel of a jazzed-out jam session. But 21 years later, what is its relevance? While I don’t believe The Low End Theory to be the outstanding masterpiece it’s been lauded as, it’s nevertheless dope. And dope music doesn’t lose relevance.
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