Review Summary: "Nowadays I strive to be a very good influence, even though not too long ago I was a truant." - Q-Tip
‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ is aptly named: it’s a simple formula, but it works. 1993 was huge for the tribe: ‘Midnight Marauders’ was released to rave reviews – John Bush (allmusic) wrote that “the album cemented their status as alternative rap’s prime sound merchants”. So, this next move was difficult for ATCQ; disappointment tends to follow a commercial and critical peak. This album isn’t perfect (and is certainly underrated), but it does exhibit the loveable boastfulness that makes the tribe so appealing.
What’s really exceptional here is the attitude of the two MCs (Q-Tip and Phife Dawg). Tribe sustain the charisma that spans their music: they’re adamant it’s cool to be responsible, and they’re pretty convincing. The trio is boisterous while sticking to their good-guys image. They exude energy and confidence, but this makes their social commentary digestible rather than shrouding its seriousness. Their self-belief carries them – we want to side with the good guys; that they’re still cool makes them refreshing, an alternative to the East vs. West, domineering gangsta rap that surrounded them. On ‘The Pressure’ Phife Dawg rhymes:
“Now every dog has its day but eff that, it’s my year,
All you gat pullin’ MCs could never come near”
A Tribe Called Quest aren’t arrogant; their spirit is their charm. On ‘Keep It Movin’ Q-Tip announces:
“Let me let ya’ll brothers know I ain’t no West Coast disser,
Another thing I’m not is a damn ass kisser.”
The two MCs have unsurpassed chemistry, and bounce rhymes off one another in tag-team fashion. Q-Tip’s delivery is mellow and smooth, but compatible with Phife’s edge and the two infiltrate and ride their backing tracks wholly. This is a simplistic but successful balance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, conceivably because ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ is produced by ‘The Ummah’ – a collective including Q-Tip. The production here is head-nodding and funky, if tinted with a slight darkness. While highlights give the album its thrust – ‘The Pressure’ is particularly powerful – there is little stylistic evolution. The jazz-hop that hit perfect rhythm on ‘Midnight Marauders’ is toned down, if anything. The J-dilla footprints that replace it are less interesting.
It might seem an oxy-moron, but swaggering humility is enjoyable across the record - the rappers are unconventional, but have style here. It’s this that gives ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ its appeal.