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…
Welcome back to Classics Revisited. For installment #16, I’ve reviewed A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Those who follow this series will remember when I reviewed The Low End Theory. I found the album to be very good, but I didn’t see what was so groundbreaking and special about ATCQ. Therefore, I made it my mission to find out what was so appealing about ATCQ while reviewing Midnight Marauders. Read on to see what I found.
A Tribe Called Quest- made up of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi- has been categorized as alternative rap, positive hip-hop, jazz rap and backpack rap. However, none of these labels can fully encompass a group as intricate as ATCQ. I realized when listening to Midnight Marauders that ATCQ was an anomaly in early ‘90s hip-hop because they were simply themselves. In a music world full of gin, juice and Dre days, it was hip to be hard in the nine-tre. ATCQ was certainly not hard- at least not in the traditional sense.
The proof is in Midnight Marauders. The album is fun without being goofy, positive without being preachy, serious without being dense and meaningful without being self-imposing. Rather than brag about toting tools and counting cash, Q-Tip boasts that he’s “funky like your grandpa’s drawers.” Sometimes, the group’s braggadocio sounds dull, because there are only so many ways you can say you’re nice on the mic. Fortunately, the braggadocio is more often than not entertaining. Peep “Oh My God,” which I feel is the album’s unlikely opus. Backed by jazzed out production, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg rhyme their butts off while Busta Rhymes turns a pedestrian phrase into a lively hook.
What is crazy about Midnight Marauders is how ATCQ is able seamlessly intertwine positive messages with having a good time without detracting from either element. Peep “Steve Biko,” on which Q-Tip and Phife speak of being themselves in hip-hop. The fun is there, but so is the theme of being oneself. The album even includes snippets of a cool female voice informing listeners on AIDS and gun violence, among other issues. Even though the choppiness of the voice is very irritating, I nonetheless agree with her sentiments. ATCQ seems to have caught on early their potential impact on the youths they were speaking to. They took their responsibility well, using their art to uplift and entertain.
This being ATCQ’s third album, it seems the group had had enough of the critics. They come at critics of their skills and at wack emcees without sounding negative, something that is seldom found in hip-hop. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are no slouches on the mic themselves, with the former spitting smoothly and the latter providing an entertaining delivery (that Jamaican-accent impression is priceless). Their chemistry is impeccable, and is one of the main strengths of ATCQ as a whole. Sucka N***a, which brilliantly breaks down the history of the n-word within a few bars, showcases the duo’s excellence back-and-forth track presence to a tee.
Musically, Midnight Marauders finds ATCQ venturing into a more electro, after-hours type of sound. The album features less jazzy riffs and more electronic keys. That’s not to say this is a bad thing. ATCQ makes sure their production fits like a glove, never sounding out of place. Only the Skeff Anselm-produced “8 Million Stories” suffers from a lame beat. Oh, and those drums still thap pretty hard.
There is so much else I could say about Midnight Marauders, which is another album I found to be so jam-packed with intricacies and subtleties I feel I will learn more from it for many spins to come. Like many great albums, it gets better with each listen. Yes, it’s 19 years old, but relevancy isn’t a question. Rappers may not be as hardcore as they once were, but many are still following trends and maintaining false images of themselves. A Tribe Called Quest never fronts and its members are themselves from start to finish. That’s something rare today, and ATCQ’s presence is surely missed. I mean, come on, when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?
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