Everything about Midnight Marauders, from lyrics to beats to album art, is about community. Building steam from the massive praise showered upon The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest expanded on concepts that record only glazed over, taking a closer look at the urban social climate and adding complex layers of samples to their previously stripped-down sound. Experimenting with a sure thing was risky business, but, like the jazz players that preceded them, Tribe refused to cement themselves to one approach. Marauders is the product of this growing confidence, reflecting artistic maturity and positioning them as spokespersons for the party of rappers that adorn the liner notes.
Lyrical content has taken a “day in the life” approach the third time around, putting the superficial and the severe into perspective. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg postulate about everything from violence to sex to Knicks basketball, taking a progressive, thoughtful approach to hot-button issues (racial epithets, HIV), while still maintaining a light tone and avoiding the sophistry of rhetoric. Q-Tip plays both of these parts well, alternating between college professor and smart aleck, as dictated by tone. Vocally, he swoons like a poet or doo wop singer, flowing like water over a jazzy note, stopping only to pose a question or pass the mic to his wily counterpart.
No longer playing second fiddle, Phife has fully developed into a witty comedic author, throwing out playful boasts and hysterical similes with high frequency. Riffing on Barney and comparing inferior MCs to “cheese grits” is only scratching the surface. Repeat listens reveal a perceptive storyteller capable of exposing how day-to-day disappointments can lead to an attitude of blind complacency.
The vocal duo and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad handled the bulk of production, creating a dense layer cake of unearthed jazz elements, ranging from the standard to the obscure. Big brass bands and groovy organ lie in a bed of atmospheric and warm static, jaunty bass and driving drum beats. Inorganic sound effects and dark, cinematic keys lend a nocturnal feel to the piece, draining the manic energy of previous releases and leaving behind the molasses-sticky, sonic personification of hot asphalt.
“Electric Relaxation” drips with softly-strummed guitar and spacey electro bleeps, acquiring body and texture via a liberal dose of stand-up bass and the clip of a snare drum. Words unfurl as calm poetic exercises, stressing the female physique and the healthy libidos of our narrators. They collectively preach discreet sexuality, halting these chivalrous advances only for the occasional off-color joke or passage of patois riffage. The most pleasing aspect of their gambit is the effortless integration of two distinct voices, illustrating similar ideas through different inflections. In essence, this shared viewpoint and collaborative spirit reflects the very idea of community.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders was ranked #30 on Matt Deapo‘s Hip Hop Top 50, a ranking of 50 of the best Hip Hop albums recorded between 1978 and 2006, based on this consideration and these rules.