On September 24th, 1991, Queens New York based hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest would drop their sophomore effort “The Low End Theory.”
Formerly a quartet, ATCQ would be reduced to a trio due to the amical departure of member Jacobi White prior to this release. The remaining three member Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammed their DJ and, the late great Phife Dawg who would make his biggest contribution to date on this album as their debut in 1990 would seldom feature the rapper presence.
Riding the incredible jazzy instrumentals produced by Q-Tip, the group would create an amazing 14 track LP that would bolster their popularity in Rap and set themselves apart as perhaps the most important entity within the legendary clique known as The Native Tongues by becoming a critical darling while also going platinum.
The album makes an effort into incorporating these songs which holds messages and morals for the listeners and even some of Tribe’s own contemporaries at the time of this projects release. For instance, in “Excursions” the opener of the record sees Q-Tip rapping about being genuine and taking things as they come.
The following cut “Bugging Out” holds not only a quirky beat but also a great Phife Dawg showing as he gives a some rather interesting facts about his lifestyle and personality, a much-needed topic from someone who has remained relatively quiet in the group’s previous work. The closing of the track has a solid back and forth between Phife and Q-Tip showing a ton of chemistry an element that would only become more prominent as we go deeper into this album.
The next time Phife and Tip can be feature on the same song is in “Butter, ” which gives two fantastically cool and laid-back performances.
Phife’s verses give some behind-the-scenes info about his once-upon-a-time love in high school and his effort into going into this unsuccessful relationship serves as a heartbreaker for the album.
“Butter” also holds a gorgeous instrumental, which Q-Tip curates and give a simple but effective hook to.
Yet another element of this record are the beats.
Some of ATCQ most layered, bombastic and rich instrumentals can be found here, giving the record a reputation for being this gold standard of Jazz Rap the same way music fans would relish in other classic genre defining works like a “Kind of Blue” by Mile Davis.
Some of the most memorable beats tare in, “What?”, “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and the eternal “Scenario” a timeless posse cut which to this day is one of the genre’s most beloved hits featuring Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and all three members of the Leaders of the New School, Dinco D, Charlie Brown, and Busta Rhymes.
The groups consciousness and effort to bring issues to light are also reasons for The Low-End Theory’s praise.
“The Infamous Date Rape” is a dark yet refreshing take on the typical “girls, girls, girls” attitude most rappers would find themselves talking on the subject of women.
The cut gives a fictional story of Q-Tip finding himself in a newfound relationship and seeking to reach the next level but, his date thought he was moving too fast. they decide to part ways.
On the other end, Phife Dawg’s verse is about a more established relationship that goes through a rough patch as the girl falsely accuses him of rape despite the couple already being intimate with one another.
The album’s themes of consciousness don’t stop there however, as tracks like “Rap Promoter”, “Show Business” and, “Everything is Fair” discuss diverse topics like, the music industry, fame, crime, and urban life.
The dense nature of this album is something to behold as the group’s more fun and loose side also shows up giving the record a charming character.
“Verses from the Abstract” feature a groovy beat featuring jazz legend Ron Carter laying the bassline on which Q-Tip uses to shoutout his peers in Hip-Hop and show off his rapping chops. “Vibe and Suff” is yet another solid cut where the group’s two rapper have verses over a relaxed instrumental similarly to track nine “Check the Rhyme” the albums lead single.
Finally, “Skypager” is a silly yet dated songs about pagers, a technology that is has since gone obsolete but still gives a nostalgic feel of what it was like to live daily life in the 90s.
In the 30 years since this album release, A Tribe Called Quest has released four other efforts the latest of which came in 2016, the same year Phife Dawg passed away from diabetes.
The LP is still remarkably fresh in both lyrical content and production, set a bar for other jazz rap records and remains an essential listen for any music fan willing to dip their toes into an all-time rap classic.