Posted in Essential Albums, Hip Hop Reviews, Music Reviews

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory – Review

HIP HOP WEEK #2

the-low-end-theory

Here’s a moderately abridged list of things I don’t understand:

  1. Jazz
  2. Hip Hop

Somewhere someone had the brilliant idea to combine them. Yay.

Actually, I take back that sarcasm. Jazz rap is a pretty brilliant idea. Jazz is known for being subdued, mellow, and classy. Hip-hop is known for being frantic, angry, and dirty. The most interesting subgenres are ones that seem self-defeating, because they force you to examine the core of each genre in order to make them cooperate.

Incidentally, is jazz metal a thing? That should be a thing. I would listen the crap out of that.

Anyway, The Low End Theory doesn’t capitalize on the potentially complex combination of jazz and rap, opting to simply have jazz-flavored beats. At first this disappointed me, but as I became familiar with this album and its philosophy, I think it actually works very well. The jazz elements and samples are used to give the album a cool, level-headed, laid-back tone. It sounds so fresh and unique among hip-hop that I would probably believe you if you told me it was recorded yesterday instead of 1991. The beats are memorable, hooky, and offer a good compromise between the silky flow of jazz and the throbbing rhythm of a hip-hop track. This is made even better by the introduction of influences and samples from similar genres like funk and soul, giving the mostly smooth pacing of the album a few nifty sonic grooves.

This is aided by the two MCs, Q Tip and Phife Dawg. I can understand not liking them, since their voices are not as rough or commanding as rappers’ voices tend to be, but that adds to the balance of gritty and silky at the heart of the album’s aesthetic. Q Tip is subdued, cunning, and a lot more arrogant then he wants to admit. One of the most tiresome motifs in hip-hop is the rapper who won’t shut up about how great he is, but Q Tip’s self-awareness gives him an interesting and entertaining presence.

As for Phife Dawg, he breaks down the arrogance of hip hop even better. A casual listen to the song “Butter”, for example, will probably leave you with the impression that it’s yet another “I’m such a player and have so much sex” ramble. Actually paying attention reveals that it IS about a player who has a lot of sex…and he gets his ego completely broken by a single rejection. Then he gets all whiny as he attempts to recompose himself. It’s much more interesting than your typical take on the subject. It was a good decision to give this to a goofy, non-serious ham like Phife.

The album has a number of reoccurring themes: how terrible the music industry is (expertly thrashed on “Rap Promoter”), and how overly negative hip hop music is. The overall message of uniting to overcome societal prejudices gives some of the verses a surprisingly inspiring feel. References to old music and other pop culture add another layer of positive humor. When it does get negative, it’s generally over social issues. The most famous example is “The Infamous Date Rape”, which basically tells the dominant-macho side of hip-hop to sit down and reconsider whether or not non-consensuality is a good thing. Yeah. This type of common sense is severally lacking in rap. The verses get a bit muddled (a common problem on this album, since the satire is sometimes hard to distinguish from the sincerity), but it’s a good song nonetheless, joining the for-some-reason-existent subgenre of anti-rape songs with confusing titles (we can thank Nirvana’s “Rape Me” for that one).

The highlight to end all highlights is, of course, the classic “Scenario”, a rousing finale for a very low-key album. Q Tip and Phife pull out album-best verses to compliment the infectious hook and energetic beat, but the best part is Butsa Rhyme’s endlessly fun guest bars. Other great tracks include the super-goofy “Buggin’ Out”, the lover letter to jazz in the aptly titled “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, and “What?”, which has possibly my favorite set of lyrics on the album, making the best possible use of a very simple concept.

Aside from a few unnecessary ambiguities that muddle the pool a bit, this is a fantastic effort of an album, elevated by two compelling MCs delivering quirky and enjoyable lyrics to incredible and unique beats. This album’s popularity transcends the hip-hop community, and it’s easy to see why.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 4/5

Lyricism: 4/5

Diversity: 4/5

Resonance: 4/5

Experience: Writing half-drunk poetry with Miles Davis on shuffle, snuggled up in a decidedly unthreatening blanket. It takes the mind places, man.

9/10. Best Song: Scenario

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Author:

I'm a teenager who writes about music, movies, and other popular art in a style somewhere between George Starostin, Bob Chipman, John McFerrin, and sometimes William Zinsser. It's worse then it sounds.

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