In Praise of 'The Love Movement,' A Tribe Called Quest's Least-Loved Album

“That’s a beautiful fucking album.”
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Before they released the critically-acclaimed We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service in 2016, 1998's The Love Movement was A Tribe Called Quest's final album. 

For many fans, this meant the group went out with a whimper, not a bang. But on the 20th anniversary of The Love Movement, this little-loved album deserves a long-overdue re-appreciation.

I am the only person I know whose favorite Tribe album is The Love Movement. This makes me uniquely unqualified to talk about it objectively, but it does mean, hopefully, that I can be the one to showcase it in a different light.

Released on September 29, 1998, The Love Movement was A Tribe Called Quest’s fifth studio album. If you look up ranked lists of Tribe’s albums online (which I often do just for fun), you’ll see that The Love Movement consistently comes in last place. It’s not that anyone hates the album—most of these professional rankers rate the project a 7 out of 10—but rather, it’s the least enjoyable entry in an otherwise impeccable discography. Still, some critics have written bad words about it. Rolling Stone’s three-star review labeled the album as “a constant bombardment of the not particularly noticeable,” before going on to describe it as “not much fun even when it’s pretty good.”

That was harsh, but no one was harsher on The Love Movement than Tribe member Phife Dawg himself before his untimely passing in 2016. “It’s weird to me that it would be called The Love Movement,” Phife told Michael Rapaport (Gary from Friends) for his 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. “Because we really were not loving that album. We were not loving putting out that album. We didn’t even love each other at that time, so to speak.”

To me, Phife's commentary is part of what makes The Love Movement so interesting. It’s an album that was born out of conflict. Things were falling apart. Tribe didn’t even hold it together long enough to properly promote the album; they announced their breakup one month before the album's release date. Yet the album itself is fixated on love and affection. “The Love” makes it clear it was never about the money (We do it all for the love, y’all); “Give Me” evokes childhood ambitions (Doin’ our thing in Queens / We had dreams about bein’ MCs); “Pad & Pen” is about the pure joy of rhyming (My pad and my pen / The beat and the blend / The party won’t end).

Reading between the lines, though, the tensions are clear. Though he was no longer in danger of being eclipsed by interloper Consequence, who dominated the group's previous album, Beats, Rhymes & Life, Phife’s contributions are still quite minimal. Ask anyone who watched the Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary: Phife was insecure about his place in the group, especially because Q-Tip was a vocalist and a producer, and apparently saw himself as the Diana Ross of the ensemble.

Perhaps this underlying tension inspired Phife to bring some of the most blistering verses of his career to the project. He may not have had as many rhymes as Q-Tip, but whenever he appeared, he made every word count. As he says during “Steppin’ It Up,” “Five foot invasion, son / You can’t run from it.” And you really can’t.

Still, the “breakup album” angle isn’t the only way to look at The Love Movement, and it certainly isn’t the most rewarding one. People talk about The Love Movement like it was the end of something—Phife Dawg once quipped: “It should have been called The Last Movement”—but really it was the start of something new. It laid the groundwork for Q-Tip’s criminally under-appreciated solo career. It played an important part in the formation of the Soulquarian collective, which produced some of the best music of the 2000s. And it was one of the first major projects to feature production from Jay Dee, later known as J Dilla.

Working with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad under the moniker The Ummah, Dilla pushed Tribe’s sound forward into uncharted sonic territory that has barely been explored since. The producers reworked hip-hop’s traditional sample-based architecture from the ground up, morphing and blending samples into completely unique constructions. Almost none of the samples on the album are recognizable, even the ones taken from popular songs. “Pad & Pen,” for example, features a clip from The Gap Band’s “Yearnin’ for Your Love” (also famously sampled by Nas), but in its new context, it becomes something completely new. Other samples are even more heavily reworked. From the very start, The Love Movement creates a unique atmosphere based on smooth, swirling soundscapes and unquantized, snapping drumbeats, as exemplified by “Like It Like That.”

For the most part, the only instrument that makes it through The Ummah’s samplers untouched is an acoustic piano, often cutting through the mix of warped sounds and hypnotic drones. Throwing funky bass lines by the wayside, The Ummah bury their songs in a thick layer of sub-bass, capable of rattling eardrums through even the weakest pair of headphones.

I’m not saying The Love Movement was Tribe’s 808s & Heartbreak, but their change in sound here was the kind of pivot that an artist like Kanye West would be hailed as a visionary for today. Or, at least, he would have been in his pre-#MAGA days. Think about the musical landscape at the time The Love Movement came out. Yes, 1998 was a great year for hip-hop, but the biggest rap hits of the late 2000s can’t touch The Ummah when it comes to sonic creativity. Dr Dre’s “The Next Episode,” for example, with its straightforward David Axelrod sample, sounds unadventurous and conservative in comparison.

Tribe’s previous album, Beats, Rhymes & Life, was also produced by The Ummah, but even though the building blocks for their signature sound are there, few of the songs are worthy of it. With Love Movement, it’s a different story. A catchy track like “Da Booty” is totally hilarious ("What is it that everybody has / And some pirates and thieves try to take?"), and “Find a Way” actually made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. You can play “Like It Like That” on repeat for hours without getting bored, and “Pad & Pen” could have become a live staple. Unfortunately, since Tribe broke up before The Love Movement came out, they never got a chance to perform most of the album onstage, and the album never got the promotion it deserved.

The Ummah went on to work with musical icons like Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. J Dilla, of course, went on to change lives. But if you’re still not convinced the album is a sleeping giant, stick around for the bonus tracks. Originally included as a second disc, these six additional songs include a remastered version of “Hot Sex” from 1992’s Boomerang soundtrack, which features hip-hop’s greatest ever Three’s Company reference. And the remixes of classic Tribe tracks “Jazz,” “Oh My God,” and “Scenario” show just how far the group’s sound had come.

I’ll leave the last word here to a man who was, for a long time, Tribe’s least vocal member. Jarobi may have given us some godly bars on We got it from Here… but prior to his reappearance, his talents went missing from every Tribe album since the group's 1990 debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Jarobi was still good friends with the group, though, and, as he says in Beats, Rhymes & Life, he began to “poke [his] head in a little more” around the time The Love Movement was being recorded.

His verdict? “That’s a beautiful fucking album.”

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