Dateline 1991. Playing in the background: “Can I Kick It?”, the first Tribe song I ever heard. So polite, so laid-back and crowd-participatory, so jazzy and skilled, so confident, so redolent of the new New York we were trying to create. Here was my first encounter with a friendly character we’d all come to know very well over the next few years–Q-Tip, who was, even then, cool and composed, intellectually nimble and completely in charge of the operation. Phife was the junior partner, the little brother, and hadn’t found his feet yet; nevertheless, he came up with one of the song’s most memorable lines. Midway through the second verse, he directs a plaintive request toward a guy who probably wasn’t listening to very much rap music:
Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?
Phife, then just barely free of his teen years, gave voice to a feeling that many New Yorkers of all ages had. We hoped that many of the troubles afflicting the city — racial dissension, economic inequality, gentrification, incivility, disappearing greenspace — might be eased if an African-American were to helm the municipal government. Police might tread lighter; neighbors might be more cooperative; a black face in a position of civic prominence might undercut some of the cruel assumptions about nonwhite leadership that were then (and still) ambient. All of that was present in Phife’s delivery. He had none of the strategic reserve and artful detachment that was already his partner’s hallmark. Phife sounded guileless — so straightforward and wide open to the possibilities of the future that it was hard not to be a little scared for him. What would happen when this wishful kid encountered reality? Would he still think that bureaucratic functionaries would be doing us all a really big favor by assuming authority?
Ten years and hundreds of hip-hop quotables later, A Tribe Called Quest took the stage at the Hammerstein Ballroom for a farewell concert. Q-Tip hadn’t changed very much, but Phife was a different character altogether. He’d become a battle rapper; a lyrical samurai with a bottomless grab bag of clever rhymes and pop-culture references at his disposal. His voice, too, had set and hardened like old wood. He’d grown into the role of the Five Foot Assassin: the Tribe’s lethal counterpuncher and no-nonsense connection to street wisdom. The four-man crew — for Jarobi had come along to be part of the big goodbye– was still promoting The Love Movement, but they did some of the old favorites too. And when Phife came to that second verse of “Can I Kick It?:, I recall he did an edit on the fly:
Mr. Dinkins was a fucked-up mayor.
No further elaboration, nothing specific about what made him change his outlook, no implication that he had a partisan agenda or ax to grind; nothing but cold-eyed disillusionment. Just like Phife, we’d all lived through the Dinkins years, and we’d learned that if it was as easy as electing a black man to an administrative position and waiting while he worked his magic, our problems would have been over long ago. But they weren’t, and Phife, who’d long since lost his patience with bullshit and smoke-blowing, had become constitutionally incapable of rapping to mislead or obscure. If he’d come to the conclusion that David Dinkins was a fucked up mayor, well, that’s what he was going to say, no more and no less.
The Tribe split up. Q-Tip did solo sets, starred in Poetic Justice, produced and arranged and networked, and assumed the role of Secretary of Something-or-Other in Kanye West’s cabinet. Phife got sick. The man who called himself “the funky diabetic” — and famously boasted that he drank so much soda that they called him Dr. Pepper — exacerbated his disease. He did manage to get out one album of his own–its lead single, “Flawless”, attacked Q-Tip’s blatant showbiz moves. The tension between the precise, ambitious, stylish Tip and the earthy, combative, unglamorous Phife made the sporadic Tribe reunions fascinating to watch. It also seemed to guarantee that they’d never be able to hang together in the studio long enough to make another album.
Malik “Phife” Taylor, as you know good and damn well, is no longer with us. 2016 was loaded with music-star death; Phife’s might have been the saddest of all because it felt so avoidable. Hip-hop loved him, his friends loved him, Jarobi loved him enough to move to Atlanta to cook for him, his wife loved him enough to give him one of her kidneys. All of that affection and respect couldn’t save him, and he went to his grave at 45 — even for a reluctant celebrity carrying the heavy mantle of Queens hip-hop and burdened with the expectations that always accompany early success, that’s way too young.
The death of Phife is one of the two major topics on We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the group’s surprise-released sixth full-length and a handy winner of our 27th annual Poll. The other is the pitiful state of American civil society and the not-unrelated question of generational transition in hip-hop: how do elder statesmen get the new kids to carry on their values without appearing schoolmarmish? Q-Tip sprinkles sugar and praises star pupils (Kendrick and J. Cole, natch); he cultivates a performance of understanding and wags an olive branch. Unwilling to get with the program and eager to fall back on his core competency, Phife just wants to battle. These mumble-rap kids are easy pickings; should they show up to the fight, which is unlikely given their assumed cowardice, the Madman Malik stands ready to administer a lyrical beatdown. Diplomacy was never his thing.
Neither was mysticism. On the album’s tear-jerking second half, Tip and his associates reanimate their dead friend through rhyme: sometimes they deliver encomiums and testimonials, sometimes they imagine him at peace with “no more worries”, and sometimes they adopt his character and use his leftover verses and catchphrases and bow bow woof woofs. Realist and materialist that he was, it is hard to imagine Phife having time for any of this. His experience, as he makes manifest in his own rhymes, was one of pain. Show business, for him, was a thin veneer and one liable to rip at the slightest pressure. Behind it was the poet, operating cushion-free, confronting a big world and his own problems with his fists balled up.
As for the deft-as-ever Q-Tip, he fights the suspicion that the slow-motion destruction of his partner is an analog for the slow-motion destruction of the country. On the political songs that start the album, he sounds braced for the worst, frayed, neurotic, occasionally shattered, unwilling to summon the breezy confidence that characterized his delivery in the early 1990s. Most of We Got It was written and recorded in the wake of the Paris attacks, and Tip, who pointedly rhymes about the “woman with the wisdom who is leading the way”, expected Americans to regain their senses. We were dancing close to the brink, yes, but we’d be spared the full cataclysm.
Phife wasn’t so hopeful. He had harder words for those who thought we could joke or entertain our way out of the corner we’ve painted ourselves into. His snarling verse on “Conrad, Tokyo”:
Trump and the SNL Hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no time for comedy/Blood clot you doing, bullshit you spewing/As if this country ain’t already ruined.
As innocently and optimistically as he delivered the Dinkins line?, that’s how angry and defeated he sounds on “Conrad”. This is how Phife Dawg went out — with no illusions about the mess we’ve made or our capacity to clean it up, convinced of our collective complicity, and realistic about his own self-destructive behavior. Heroes or saviors weren’t coming; if there were any consequential decisions left to be made, we were surely going to choose the wrong option. Because he took the world on its own ugly terms, and because he kept his defenses down, courageously and heroically and in the name of good, concise writing, he was able to get straight to the point with no filigree and no excuses. His story ended in tragedy. Ours hasn’t just yet, but we’re sure as heck heading that way — and if it does and he was around for it, he’d have said so. He’d have rhymed about the rope on the way to the gallows. It’s the only way he knew how to play the game.
Q-Tip is one of the great musicians in hip-hop history. Phife, for all his talents, was no such thing. But the prospect of A Tribe Called Quest without Phife’s participation is absurd — his distinctive sensibility and perspective was always essential to the project. Q-Tip was the leavening, Phife was the astringent; they went together and reinforced each other, and now that the Madman Malik is lost to him, his former partner will never find another collaborator who complements him anywhere near as well. They grew up together and developed interlocking skills; now Tip is a free radical, but he’ll never truly be home again. Word has it he’s got a solo album coming this year. It’ll be good, I’m sure, but it won’t win this Poll or any other. By the timeWe Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service came out, Phife was already long gone, which made it an elegy, a glance in the rear view mirror in a year of loss where everything worthy seemed to turn to sand in our hands. From the moment of its release, it was a reminder of something, and somebody, gone forever — and a memento of a brutal fight that the good guys lost.
Your albums of 2016, plus points:
- 1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (381)
- 2. David Bowie — Blackstar (304)
- 3. Mitski — Puberty 2 (252)
- 4. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial (238)
- 5. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker (235)
Gosh, that’s a grim Top 5. Guess it suits these sad times. Also, our regular voters are far older now than they were when we started this exercise, and our results reflect this. Since 2016 forced everybody to confront mortality, the high body count is not that much of a surprise. That said, the other two albums here are all about the late-teenage predicament, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten where we came from. I’ve noticed that aging individuals often accompany their principled disengagement from new music with a complementary detachment from the concerns of young people. Even though we’re no longer young people ourselves, that hasn’t happened to us yet. I hope it never will.
- 6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo (232)
- 7. Solange — A Seat At The Table (230)
- 8. Frank Ocean — Blonde (188)
- 8. Anderson.Paak — Malibu (188)
- 8. Drake — Views (188)
There are more black faces on this list than there often are. Not just ours; almost all of the mainstream end-of-year lists are similarly skewed toward megastatement records made by people of color. The average African-American pop star has become an unabashed critical favorite and cultural luminary, and how different this feels from the years of my youth when MTV was Michael Jackson and the seven thousand dwarves. Part of this is due to the stars themselves: the Knowles sisters, meticulous footnoters and chroniclers and students of history that they are, do make sure to engage in contemporary societal debate in a way that Whitney Houston didn’t, or couldn’t. No knock on Whitney; you know I love her. Even if she’d wanted to, the music industry would never have allowed her to make an album like Lemonade or A Seat At The Table. The major-statement records that critics then loved were exercises in cultural mediation, if not outright appropriation: Peter Gabriel’s stuff, and Paul Simon, and Sting. Hip-hop changed all of that. Now when old rock stars like U2, Coldplay or Green Day attempt to protest, or engage with current affairs, or ride the zeitgeist, there’s always a whiff of Broadway schtick about it. We don’t trust it. We don’t feel like they’re entitled to their critique in the same way that Kendrick is.
But before we all pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness, I’d like to point something out that wasn’t always true. After David Bowie — who had been living on Lafayette Street in Soho for years –you’ve got to go all the way down to #23 to find the next non-North American artist on this list. Again, that’s not just us: pop artists from the upper part of the Western Hemisphere are monopolizing critical attention. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to the upheaval that’s currently happening in America. It is now our civic responsibility to concentrate on homegrown debates, and the parlous condition of our inner cities, and babies are dying in Detroit and hey, those European rappers aren’t any good anyway, right? Wait, there are musicians in Mexico?
I, too, love American pop stars best. Of course I do: I’m as ugly an American as you’ll ever see. But I also recall that in the heyday of Blur I used to write a column called British Inversion, and that I once followed musical developments on the Continent. I don’t anymore, not really, and I’m not alone. Consider it another manifestation of the sharp inward turn that we’ve taken together. I fear we’ve exchanged one big blind spot for another.
- 11. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book (185)
- 12. Beyonce — Lemonade (181)
- 13. Paul Simon — Stranger To Stranger (164)
- 14. Noname — Telefone (161)
- 15. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution (159)
That said, the major developments in 2016 pop were welcome ones. With varying degrees of success — but an extremely high level of commitment and enthusiasm right across the board –nonwhite female artists attempted to seize the means of aesthetic production and tell their personal stories without the usual mediation from the boys. This happened in the industry’s most celebrated quarters, as Beyonce, Rihanna, and Alicia Keys all helmed personal-statement records that, at the very least, attempted to create the illusion of artistic autonomy. It happened in the great American mid-level, where college rock acts (Mitski), upper-middlebrow jazzbo entertainers (Esperanza Spalding), and Downtown rock-chuckers (Xenia Rubinos) sang feminist fightin’ words and made their identity politics explicit. Most importantly, it happened in the trenches. Independent artists like Noname and Jamila Woods (#44 on this Poll; ought to be muuuuuuch higher) dispensed with the intermediaries and uploaded their music straight to Soundcloud. This allowed them to be as gently incendiary as they wanted to be; Woods’s HEAVN was, in its quiet way, the year’s most militant album and its most concentrated application of black girl magic; Telefone is a more personal set but one absolutely grounded in her experiences on the South Side of Chicago.
Of course there were many men, some of whom are melanin-deficient, involved in the making of all of this music; Solange’s for-us-by-us anthem credits Dave Longstreth, for Pete’s sake. That doesn’t invalidate any of the critiques advanced by these projects or make me any less certain that we’ve got something cooking here. Not all of these albums are hip-hop per se, but they use its accumulative logic and confrontational methods to make art that totally rejects the sort of grotesque objecthood that is usually a girl’s lot in show business. Hip-hop has often refused to accommodate female perspectives, but this year, I watched some of that long-frozen resistance begin to thaw — I mean, if you, rap fan, couldn’t respect Lemonade (or HEAVN, or “Diddy Bop”) for what it was, there’s a pretty decent chance you weren’t just sexist but also a little dense. There are no coincidences in American culture — it’s far too garish for that — and in 2016 we all had to watch a woman with a long resume get humiliated by a guy who probably hasn’t read a book in twenty years. Alas it remains a man’s man’s man’s world, and the music industry is very much part of that world. The women with the wisdom rarely get to lead the way: they’ve always had to scramble and compromise and cut corners to find their places in it. So while you’re mourning the disfigurement of your country and plotting your resistance, save a prayer for Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae, and Maplewood’s own Ms. Hill, who died, over and over, in public, for our sins.
- 16. Shearwater — Jet Plane And Oxbow (149)
- 17. Pinegrove — Cardinal (141)
- 18. Nada Surf — You Know Who You Are (140)
- 19. Okkervil River — Away (137)
- 20. Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat (135)
It’s also encouraging to me that many of these artists — Jamila Woods and Noname and the rest of your World Champion Chicago SoX — released their music for free via streaming services. Local heroes Pinegrove had the Cardinal tracks up for grabs on Bandcamp for awhile; I believe they’re asking for seven bucks now, but if you’re a cheapskate, you can always direct your browser to YouTube. Barring some kind of corporate conglomeration disaster that, given the mutability and slipperiness of digital files, probably wouldn’t affect pop music very much anyway, this right here is the wave of the future and the death knell for Apple’s dominance. Because when you can distribute files straight from a streaming site, why bother with iTunes? Rather than muck around with a library/database that has always felt to me like a grey administrative chore, I’ve taken to going to Soundcloud and streaming albums directly. If I’m on my bicycle or walking around town and I want music, there’s really no need to make a playlist: Saba’s album is right there for me, and all I’ve got to do is press start. This would have developed even if Chance the Rapper hadn’t made giving music away seem cool, but Chance’s selfless example has accelerated the process — and also demonstrated that it’d never stop anybody from becoming a mainstream star; I mean, turn on your TV, he’s doing Kit-Kat commercials now. His momma was dead on when she called him culture.
- 21. Tegan And Sara — Love You To Death (134)
- 22. Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition (132)
- 23. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool (130)
- 24. Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost (125)
- 25. Weezer — White Album (117)
- 26. Bob Mould — Patch The Sky (114)
- 26. Drive-By Truckers — American Band (114)
- 28. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound (111)
- 28. Moor Mother — Fetish Bones (111)
- 30. Aesop Rock — The Impossible Kid (109)
You may recall that Okkervil River nosed out Yeezus to take the 2013 Poll. Three years later, Will Sheff’s outfit didn’t do as well; in fact, this was the first time Okkervil polled lower than their friends in Shearwater. Kanye West lost some ground, too — after nearly winning in 2013 and finishing second in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he slides a bit to sixth place. As we’ll see in a few days, this was the year that Kanye’s antics (if you even want to call them that) went over the line and began to affect your assessment of his music. Frank Ocean, author of the year’s most polarizing album, slid a little too. Tegan And Sara gave back some of the ground they gained with Heartthrob; Danny Brown continued his incremental descent down Poll mountain; despite my many attempts to stamp out the menace, Radiohead still persists, down a bit but squarely in the Top 30. Damn weed-b-gone never works.
So who, then, is on the way up? Many older artists, strange to say. A Tribe Called Quest did win this poll before, but it was 1991 and we were still doing it on the placemats at Syd’s diner in Millburn. Even people I think of as long-time regulars hadn’t had an opportunity to vote for the Tribe before. You did like Bowie’s Next Day enough to put it in the Top 5, but Blackstar drew an even more enthusiastic response. Interestingly, Stranger To Stranger is Paul Simon’s best finish on a Critics Poll — had we been doing this in ’86, he might very well have won, but none of his post-Graceland releases have come close. Weezer, Bob Mould, and Aesop Rock continued their steady ascents in the league tables; by the time they’re 90, they’ll probably win one of these things each. Don’t laugh: Chuck Berry has a new album coming out soon. Won’t be surprising at all if I vote for it.
- 31. Lucy Dacus — No Burden (108)
- 32. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years (106)
- 33. Angel Olsen — My Woman (103)
- 34. Shirley Collins — Lodestar (94)
- 35. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered (93)
- 36. Kevin Devine — Instigator (91)
- 37. Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing (88)
- 38. Britta Phillips — Luck Or Magic (87)
- 39. Rihanna — Anti (86)
- 40. Trash Can Sinatras — Wild Pendulum (82)
Okay, that’s a wrap for today! Back tomorrow with the singles list, and an essay about a misapprehension that’s screwing with our understanding of contemporary pop. Thanks again for reading and playing, and please stay safe out there.
Other albums getting #1 votes
- Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die
- Haley Bonar — Impossible Dream
- Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
- Jeremy Bible — Music For Black Holes
- Mikey Erg — Boys And Girls And Tentative Decisions
- Miranda Lambert — The Weight Of These Wings
- Nice As Fuck — Nice As Fuck
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
- Norah Jones — Day Breaks
- Noura Mint Seymali — Arbina
- NxWorries — Yes, Lawd
- Savages — Adore Life
- School Of Seven Bells — SVIIB
- St. Lenox — Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
- Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
- Teleman — Brilliant Sanity
- The Rolling Stones — Blue & Lonesome
- Tim Heidecker — In Glendale
- TUNS —TUNS