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Classic Reviews: A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders

A Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders

This article originally appeared in the December 1993 issue of SPIN.

A Tribe Called Quest‘s previous album, The Low End Theory, promised more than it delivered, and it delivered a lot. What it promised was a whole new era of hip-hop. Fully assimilated now, jazz in rap is as clichéd as James Brown samples, suede Pumas, and mime jokes. A Tribe Called Quest should be recognized, however, for adopting jazz as sensibility and method, not just as a hip affectation; the way Q-Tip and Phife trade solos evokes the spontaneity of an improv jam session, but the smoke in the room is cheeba, not tobacco.

“Relax yourself on a preset plan,” Quest demands, and that preset plan is Midnight Marauders. Midnight Marauder Tour Guide is also the name of the album’s narrator. Between every cut she interjects pertinent information to ease us into the groove (“the word maraud means to loot. In this case, we loot ears”) and general tips for survival (“you are not less of a man if you pull the trigger; you are not necessarily more of a man if you do”). Like Quest’s music, the words of Marauder are a mix of serious fun and deep knowledge. Like a ringmaster, she provides a little color while directing our attention to the center ring, where Q-Tip and Phife perform their lyrical acrobatics. Tip and Phife flow like they invented the word, complementing each other’s styles perfectly — they’re Ren and Stimpy, Rerun and Raj, according to Phife. Tip plays the straight man, anchoring Phife’s goof-offs; while Phife boasts that he’s “crushing competition like tires on grapes,” Q-Tip softens the aggression: “I’m the cherry on top of your ice cream,” he assures us.

Quest usually stays away from the topical — its favored medium is the embellishment of day-to-day adventures — but on “Sucka Nigga,” Tip’s solo turn neatly anatomizes the word “nigger.” As Tip says “I start to flinch when I say nigger,” while at the same time trying to “embrace” it and draw out its venom, he exposes himself for a rare moment.

With its smooth textures that bubble up from unseen, mellow depths, Marauders is a 50-minute-long buzz, which isn’t a gratuitous drug reference but a simple fact. The perfect companion for strolling down the street, or just bobbing your head on the couch, Midnight Marauders, like all of Quest’s work, is the sound of hanging out.