Assessing great works of art, or trying to use words to convey the depths of our admiration of said works, is a futile pursuit. It’s not quite silly, as there’s good reason to spread the word about an album, painting, movie, or book that others might love. But it’s damn near impossible.
One of the great artistic landmarks of late-20th century popular music, and specifically the world of hip-hop, is A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 masterpiece The Low End Theory.
The problem with where I take this essay from here relates to my previous assertion that it’s such a difficult task. It would be easier to lock you in a room or a car and just put The Low End Theory on repeat. More effective would be a time machine to transport us back to the house parties of the early-to-mid 90’s, where it seemed everyone had this album and everyone knew at least most of the words. Another angle might be to quote the legions of previous writers and musicians who have noted its brilliance and the influence that this Tribe album had on the world of rap music.
Of course, any attempt would have to start with mentioning jazz, who fathered this album and so obviously passed on its good looks, laid-back disposition, and creative talent. In fact, the very first lines of the album find the Tribe’s abstract rapper Q-Tip rhyming “listening to hip-hop” with “my Pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop.”
For better or worse, this album spawned a genre of hip-hop/jazz imitators and innovators who succeeded (or failed) in varying degrees to solidify and expand on that bridge of the cool that now linked jazz and hip-hop. The Low End Theory serves as not only an influential launch point for a musical movement, but still stands the test of time as its ultimate peak as well.
At the heart of the album is the work of legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. But it’s the starkness of the arrangements (no elaborate overdubbing or sampling of extra horns, keyboards, or any superfluous sounds) that serves as the secret weapon. Just beats, rhymes, and life, as they would name a future album. The beats appear simple but they crack and pop and hit with the groove and precision of fingers snapping and heads nodding. Beats that are hard, beats that are funky…
The clarity of the beats allowed the vocals to really carry each track with wordplay and memorable one liners light years beyond today’s substandard monotonous dance-floor hooks chanted over ringtone-worthy tracks. When they said “Rap is not pop and if you call that then stop,” it rang true; but in retrospect it could be seen as a prophetic warning about what might become of the artistry of hip-hop if it is co-opted and sold as mainstream pop-culture product. In fact, much of the album now sounds like a prescient manifesto about the ills of the music industry.
Elsewhere, the lyrics are littered with references that sound as oddly quaint and off the beaten path now as they did then: Lou Brock, Dr. Pepper, Shabba Ranks, Ralph Tresvant, Scott Skiles, Peter Tosh, and Ralph Kramden get mentioned alongside Duke Ellington, Alex Haley, Chuck D, Karl Malone, Bob Marley, and Afrika Bambaattaa. Arsenio Hall is mentioned at least three times. But words and lyrics only tell half the story. It was the relatively laid-back delivery of the vocals that set the Tribe apart from the late-80’s boom-box bombast of Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. They didn’t just spit words; their voices and phrasing served as instruments soloing over the rhythm section.
It seems that whenever I write an essay about music, or attempt a proper album review, I’m often inclined to use the infamous Frank Zappa quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (even though there’s some dispute if that’s from Zappa or if it originated elsewhere). But for some reason great music inspires us to write, to try to explain and convey the magnificent and transcendent works that fill our ears and hearts and memories to the point that we’re moved to do joyous-but-ridiculous things like dancing about architecture. Especially something as well-constructed as The Low End Theory.
The thing about music is that it isn’t just seen once or twice and remembered fondly like a film or a painting. And while we might watch films or look at paintings more than once, we listen to albums hundreds or even thousands of times. I’ll never stop listening to The Low End Theory, and it will never stop talking to us.