The Low End Theory
Jive Records, 1991
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/22/1999
You could hear the divisions in the rap world through every windshield-throbbing stereo system in the early '90s. Before the war between the coasts engulfed the rap world, there was the battle between the cerebral and the streets.
The anger, anguish and violence of the streets dominated the sounds of N.W.A. and the artists who split from the group. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Ice-T were releasing pulverizing accounts of street life with lyrics filled with slams against "bitches" and "hoes." The music gave voice to many who did not have a voice before. However, the music actually sold more copies in the suburbs, where kids retreated to the sounds of "F*** The Police" as a means of escapism.
On the other side, there was the more intellectual movement. Just as Public Enemy was releasing their last great album, Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black, bands like De La Soul and KRS-One were putting out socially conscious music that actually moved records at the stores. Mixing the underground beat culture and elements of jazz, both De La Soul and KRS-One were on to something big.
Then a Tribe Called Quest came along. Their first major album, People's Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm may have been as confusing to figure out musically as the title, but the band already laid out a solid foundation. With their next album, The Low End Theory, they strengthened their sound by making it leaner and as a result, made one of the benchmark rap albums of the '90s.
For sheer flow, The Low End Theory is like water without any ripples. The upright bass of "Buggin' Out" and the intro track, "Excursions" announce to the listener that this is no ordinary rap album. It's almost like you can smell the stale cigarette smoke as you're sitting in a dark club with a white spotlight on the band.
The only pitfall for an album this smooth is that, at first listen, the songs flow into one another so effortlessly that you can't tell when one song ends and another begins. But give it another couple listens (don't worry, it's not that difficult to listen to this album over and over) and each song takes on its own personality.
Take the song, "Butter." Midway through the album, Pfife Dawg speals the names of all the girls he has loved before. Right at the time when misogyny dominated most every rap album out there, A Tribe Called Quest took a bold pro-woman stand on most of the songs. Not to say that they put women on a pedestal. Some of the songs off The Low End Theory deal with guys who have been dicked over by the wrong girl. But rather, A Tribe Called Quest took time to look at both sexes and what motivates them to do the things they do.
In The Low End Theory, rapper Q-Tip quickly established himself as one of the most capable MCs out there. His detatched, laid back delivery resounded on songs like "Show Business" and the lyrical mack-truck slam of "The Infamous Date Rape."
The album closes with "Scenario." That song may be the most popular song the Tribe has released. It was featured as a live track on their last album, "The Love Movement." Non-Tribe initiates may be a bit surprised to hear Busta Rhymes drop his manic style on this track.
In their next album, the band came out swinging a little harder. That may have been a response from some of their musical peers that the band lacked street crediability. But, in all of their albums, A Tribe Called Quest were able to mesh the harsh realities of urban life with the sophistication of the beat culture. Any album by the Tribe is a safer investment than most any Master P cross-promotional product, but for beginners, The Low End Theory couldn't be a better investment.