Don’t you know things go in cycles?
RIGHT. The lack of proper classic reviews on this site is disgusting. Look at this, MMMs??? What in God’s bastard child is an MMM??? Laziness. I will not stand for it. Let’s get some writing in, mate. And what better record to get into that this absolute icon.
Released in 1991, after their smashing debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm brought the attention they deserved — as well as, you know, generally breaking a country’s worth of new ground and putting their stamp on hip-hop history forever, The Low End Theory completely blew the collective socks off of the hip-hop community. After the conversational, chillax bars on People’s Instinctive Travels, Phife & Tip brought consciousness into their music, as well as a stark production style, that distinguished it immediately from its predecessor. I’m not gonna pretend there’s any doubt here — it’s a classic — so let’s just get into it.
You know these guys are meaning business immediately — as the Art Blakey double bass sample opens up intro track Excursions. This Q-Tip-led track is a big departure from everything we saw on their debut record, as his rhymes are more personal and delivered with a tighter form and flow. His seriousness is reflective particularly on the line “The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare (or Edgar Allen Poe or Langston Hughes…)“, with Tip, over comparing himself with other rappers, seeing himself as a poet. Wonders what a quick search on Genius’ll do for the analysis, innit? It’s just a cracking opener — and you know exactly where we’re going after it.
*This is a tenuous link here, but if you wanna check out the cool thing I’ve seen a damn while, here it is (Excursions appears at 3:30)*
But, if that wasn’t good enough, the best track comes after it, with Buggin’ Out. I’ve expressed my love for this in the past, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that this is one of my favourite Tribe songs. Seen by many as Phife Dawg’s initial rise to prominence, after a minimal exposure on People’s Instinctive Travels, it’s a helluva “Hey guys, I’m also here”. As I’ve said before, “YO, microphone check, 1, 2, what is this?” is possibly my favourite opening line in hip-hop history and the rest of Phife’s rap delivers just as well. And, even with that, Tip manages to hold his own with some quality lines of his own. All of this is on top of one of Tip’s most genius instrumentals — with the minimal double-bass (which puts the “Low End” in the album’s title) and breakbeat combo never failing to get my neck bopping to the point of ache.
The abrasive instrumentals of the first two BANGERS, ease up a little bit for the next track, Rap Promoter, and, even though it’s really bloody hard to follow two of Tribe’s best songs in immediate succession, it gives a good go of it. One of the most engaging songs, lyrically, so far, Rap Promoter follows a proper narrative and themes, which is always interesting to listen to. Notably, Tip’s qualms with the titular promoter. Upon multiple listens, Tip’s flow on this thing is absolutely killer, as he rolls along that first verse with a criminal-level of funk. The production is still as barebones, serving jazz in no shortage, but there’s a lighter feel with the melody than the previous two, allowing the atmosphere of the album to air out a bit so we don’t get clouded with heaviness.
This chill vibe continues with Butter. Very much one of the more Bonita-esque songs on the album, Phife spits bars on his moves — and they smoooth like butta. While it’s not a standout, ‘pay attention’ track on Low End Theory, Butter does manage to have a strong, catchy hook and continues to show-off Phife on the mic.
The quality shoots up once again with the excellent Tip-led Verses From The Abstract. With the rapper earning his eponymous nickname, as becomes more philosophical than we’ve heard him be, assuming an almost observational role on his own music. Along with this, we’re treated to one of the few live instrumentals — with legendary double-bassist Ron Carter delivering on purely classic jazz sound — leading to this one feeling unabashedly organic, something not easily achieved on any hip-hop album.
We continue to ride this high fully into the next track, Show Business, a song packed with guests — Diamond D, Lord Jamar & Sadat X, to be precise. While we’ve got a perfectly serviceable and funky-ass instrumental, this is a song that packs the lyrics in like no one’s business. Every one of the six verses we’ve got here, railing against the tribulations of fame (a concept, while not brand new, well-explored), is delivered with an almost compulsively precise flow and timing — while remaining laidback as usual. If I had to pick a favourite, though, it would, of course, be Phife’s, who had my attention as soon as he name-dropped Chuck D — a quick way to my affections, for sure.
We take another dip in the form of Vibes and Stuff. Much like its title, there is very much a sense of “afterthought” to the song. There’s little in the way of punchiness, which is the most detriment to it. However, the instrumental remains one of the most sublimely summery, for me, and is one of my favourites on the album because of it. This is in no due part thanks to my association with the Cypress Hill track Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk, a song I personally prefer, as they both sample Grant Green’s Down Here on the Ground in similar ways.
However, with The Infamous Date Rape, the quality of the album skyrockets to the levels we saw at the beginning. Probably the most vital, conscious and darkest track on the album, and in Tribe’s entire discography, Date Rape is revolutionary in its discussion of female violence in a way that it just wasn’t in the 90s hip-hop scene.
Malcolm X famously said that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman” — and, with songs like Dre’s One Less Bitch and P.E.’s Sophisticated Bitch, it’s hard to argue. However, and while it’s disappointing that something like this is “outta the box”, Tribe talking about women *respectfully* is amazing to me. As social-commentary and socially-conscious rap goes, this, in my opinion, is one of the most important songs to hear.
RIGHT THEN. It’s not my favourite song on the album, cus it ain’t Buggin’ Out, but lead single Check The Rhime has possibly the best fucking line on The Low End Theory:
You on point, Tip?
All the time, Phife.
SO PLAY THE RESURRECTOR,
AND GIVE THE DEAD SOME LIFE.
Boi. K, let’s talk about that for a sec. EVEN WHEN HE’S INTRODUCING TIP, PHIFE STILL RULES COMPLETELY. That is possibly the best piece of wordplay in hip-hop history, and, almost 30 years later, I am very excited about it. Apart from that, however, Check The Rhime boasts the tightest back-and-forth between the two rappers, as the hop over each other with the ease only found in childhood friends — which is a key feature to the record. On top of this, we’ve got some of the sleekest production on the album, which can be expected from a single, as the bass’n’drum instrumental just feels more embellished overall.
The dip is real, however, as we get onto the following track — Everything Is Fair. While not a bad or even mediocre song by any stretch, it most definitely stands out as one of the weaker tracks on an album that is top-to-bottom bangers. The beat/piano-centric instrumental is a diversion from what we’ve become accustomed to (no bass innit) — but there’s an element of repetition (perhaps from the fact that it literally loops, you piece) to it that does prevent me from loving it.
After said break, we get back into it proper with Jazz (We Got), the second single and possibly the hookiest song on the album. On top of this, we’ve still got some bona-fine lines from the two, as well as a couple of recurring motifs becoming apparent, i.e. lotsa name-drops. Make no mistake, I will be very surprised if I make it through the rest of this review without mumbling “we got the jazz, we got the jazz” under my breath to the overall annoyance of my significant other. Only joking, I am alone.
Despite my crippling isolation, you can hardly blame the hook – it’s pretty accurate. This is encapsulated in the semi-muted bass tones and brushing hi-hats of the instrumental, further accented by the short trumpet interludes. Add to this some subtle-ass scratches from Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who has, until now, gone unnoticed in this review, somewhat unjustly might I add, and you’ve got a song that fully delivers on its title.
No, I dunno what a Skypager is, or the importance of one — I was born in ’01. This is irrelevant, however, as the defining feature of this track lies in the return of this muddy, oaky bass tone that we were introduced to at the top of the record. The unfinished-sounding beat, with its shakey snares and enveloping scratchwork, adds to the charm of the instrumental — over which Tip & Phife work some fine lyrics.
The following track, What?, while not the realised concept of Rap Promoter or the statement of Date Rape, is a fun interlude of word association over a minimal funky beat. It shows off Tip’s flow pretty nicely, but ain’t nuttin’ special at the end of the day.
Finally, we come to the closing track, third single Scenario, featuring Charlie Brown, Dinco D and Busta Rhymes — the track where the latter made his mainstream breakout performance. On this posse cut, often referred to as the “ultimate” posse cut, we’re treated to a gauntlet of excellent verses over one of the fullest instrumentals on the album, as well as boasting arguably the strongest hook on Low End Theory. Particularly, I love the verses from Charlie and Busta, both delivering some brilliant lyrics and form. It’s probably the perfect closer to this album, giving it the big blowout it deserves.
Overall, with The Low End Theory, it’s well-documented that A Tribe Called Quest managed to create one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, straight-up quality records in hip-hop history — this isn’t news. The contrast between Tribe and the rest of 90s rap music, however, is something apparent after one listen, with an offbeat humour and camaraderie between Tip and Phife that makes the raps on this a joy to listen to. Instrumentally, the blend of jazz and hip-hop is seamless and meant to be and defines the album. All in all, The Low End Theory is an essential album that anyone who claims to like hip-hop should know.
BEST TRACKS: Buggin’ Out, Excursions, The Infamous Date Rape, Check The Rhime, Rap Promoter, Scenario, Jazz (We Got), Verses From The Abstract
WORST TRACKS: Everything Is Fair, Vibes And Stuff
Lots of hugs, kisses and lacerations
5 thoughts on “The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991) – Review”
This is a great review, Milo! I wasn’t familiar with very many of the tracks on this album, so will give the whole thing a listen. Their style of soulful, jazz-infused hip hop is so much better than a lot of the shitty hip hop being made these days.
And I hate to sound like a broken record, but your writing is astonishingly good, especially given your youth. Makes me wanna throw in the proverbial towel.
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Thanks so much!! Of course I’d recommend it over literally everything in hip-hop genre right now, it’s so good!
And it’s through reading other writer’s work, especially yours, that I learn how to tailor my style and improve as a writer in general — so keep that towel close, I still gotta thing or two to learn! 😀
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Thanks! I appreciate your kind words.
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Love it, but the one about the pager really dates this one haha.
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Haha it does a lil — still a funky ass track though!