Tinged with jazz and vigorous funk, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory is a true hip-hop classic and belongs in every music lover’s record collection.
The second album for the ridiculously skillful Queens hip hop crew, comprised of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed, is their best. Released on September 24, 1991, the album includes a solid collection of guest stars, including Brand Nubian and Leaders of the New School, which was the original rap group of one Busta Rhymes.
A Tribe Called Quest had more than their work cut out for them leading into The Low End Theory. Their debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm, had been a critical smash and stood out as the quintessence of experimental hip-hop. Following it up would take some serious hard work, to say the least, but the Tribe exceeded expectations with their sophomore release.
The experimentation from People’s Instinctive Travels was more focused on The Low End Theory. Some of the professed immaturity from the debut had been transplanted with rock-solid instrumental work from a host of talented session players and a set of faultless lyrics. As such, the album became a true break point in the history of hip-hop and helped institute alternative hip-hop as a rightful genre.
The lead-off single, “Check the Rhime,” sets the stage for the rest of The Low End Theory. The line-trading between Phife and Q-Tip guides the song along as a sax loop accents the chorus. The dominant yet smooth bass cuts through the verses and allows the lyrics to stand out.
While the production is tight as all hell, the lyrics are even better. Coursing intensely and often comically through themes as broad as date rape, the exploitation of the music industry and the beauty of jazz music, Q-Tip and Phife’s spoken exchanges set the bar pretty high for hip-hop duos. Few to date can equal the chemistry and raw flow found on The Low End Theory.
“I want chicken, and orange juice, 'cause that's what's on my rider/And my occasional potato by Oreida/Don't forget my pastry make sure they're tasty/I'm not the type to be pushy or hasty,” Q-Tip spits on “Rap Promoter," a clever song that cuts into the music industry with razor-sharp observations.
The Low End Theory ranked #154 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, pulled in at #32 on Spin’s 90 Greatest Albums of the 90s, and landed on the 100 Essential Albums of the 20th Century from Vibe magazine for a reason. This is classic hip-hop in every sense of the word, a lyrically-strong album infused with first-class musical quality that is sadly all too uncommon among rap albums.
An indispensable piece in any music lover’s collection, A Tribe Called Quest’s magnificent second album is legendary.