erasing clouds

The Return of A Tribe Called Quest: "I C U (Doin' It)"

reviewed by dave heaton

From the first sounds - a mid-tempo beat and some quavering synthesizer notes - "I C U (Doin' It)" sends a surge of excitement through me that's indescribable. Why? This is a new song by A Tribe Called Quest. Let me repeat that…a new song by A Tribe Called Quest. It wouldn't matter if it was completely mediocre (and it's easy to argue that it is, I'll get to that in a second), this is a new song by my favorite hip-hop group ever. Note that I say my favorite, not the best because the latter is too hard to define and certainly up for grabs (among Run DMC, Public Enemy, and others). "Favorite" is about listening to their albums (cassette tapes, actually) literally hundreds of times and loving them every single time. "Favorite" is about marking the release date of their new album (or single, even) months ahead of time in my mental calendar and waiting then impatiently the whole time, until you can get to the record store when it opens and spend the rest of the day/week/month/year listening to the album again and again (plus studying the liner notes, and so on. "Favorite" is about feeling absolute joy when you hear their latest song, and that's how I feel about "I C U." It's by no means one of their best songs, yet it instantly works magic on me. It's not that my critical ear goes out the window with Tribe - I'm well aware of which albums are better than which and which songs are lacking - it's just that I love even the worst Tribe Called Quest songs, I love even the ones I hate (which I suppose is what being a fan is all about).

It's been 5 years since Tribe broke up: not a long time in the big scheme of things, but an eternity within the world of hip-hop, a music that's still quite young (it was literally invented less than three decades ago). So expectations for their comeback album (due at the end of next year) will no doubt be high. And I can say with almost absolute certainty that people will be disappointed. Not because Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad's talents have diminished, or even that the chemistry among the three will have lessened in any way, but because their new songs are likely to continue right where the group left off, and that wasn't a place that your average hip-hop pundit (or Tribe Called Quest fan, even) thought that highly of. Tribe's final album, 1998's The Love Movement, and even its immediate predecessor, 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life, found the group's sound soaked with contemporary R&B in a way that for whatever reason left a foul taste in a lot of people's mouths.

"I C U," the first song the group has recorded since The Love Movement, comes from that exact same place. Featuring Erykah Badu on backing vocals, the track is from the upcoming various artists compilation Violator 3: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, the third such collection from Violator, a subsidiary of Loud Records. Q-Tip and Phife have been quoted as saying that when they recorded the song they felt like nothing had changed, like they were right back where they left off. And that's exactly what it sounds like; this could easily have been an outtake from either Beats, Rhymes and Life or The Love Movement. The repeating melody behind the vocals sounds exactly like a couple off those albums. And Tip and Phife rhyme casually back and forth about sex and love in a way that, while 100% pleasing to the ears of a fan like me, is in no way showstopping or head-turning. And if Phife's verse, which references Girl 6 and rewords a gynecological come-on he used on one of their older songs, doesn't make you wonder if this isn't a song they had lying around but just never recorded until now, the overall sound of it will. In other words, this is a fitting song for a various-artists comp but not the exhilarating comeback that fans might want. But that's perfectly fine with me. I could spend days trying to sum up what it is about A Tribe Called Quest that makes their albums some of my favorite music ever, some of the brightest spots among the thousands of albums I've heard in my lifetime…but after I'm finished I doubt I'd be any closer to finding the right words than I was when I started. That a song like "I C U"--a completely enjoyable yet completely typical Tribe Called Quest song--could still make me want to listen to it again and again and again is a mystery for the ages…but I'm not complaining.

Issue 18, December 2003

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds