Midnight Marauders is the rare album that is culturally important and classic, but still listenable. Like if Citizen Kane wasn't boring.
It's jazzy boom-bap with what, in 2016, I would describe as backpacky lyrics. But this transcends mostly because Q-tip is one of the coolest individuals to have walked the earth. He and Phife Dawg have the kind of chemistry only found in 1980s buddy comedies. So even though they named the album from a line in a W.E.B. Du Bois novel and there are continual “conscious” references, it's still fun as shit to listen to 23 years later.
My favorite song is “Oh My God,” named for the Busta Rhymes sample from “Scenario” that makes up the entire hook. The remix is on The Love Movement which was my introduction to Tribe and stayed on repeat for most of 2001 when I finally discovered it, so maybe it's just embedded in my brain. But it's hype and fun and Phife raps, “Who, me sound pathetic/ When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic,” which is amazing. It had never occurred to me that Busta repeating “Oh my God” eight times might be annoying to some until I saw it mentioned on RapGenius last night as “One of the most obnoxious hip-hop hooks of all-time.” So if it managed to sneak that past me for 15 years it must be on to something.
Listening to Marauders decades later it's surprising how relevant it is. On “The Chase, Part II” after saying “Nine-Tre (93)” Q-tip says he was told not to say it so that the music could be forever. But even when the songs do date themselves it sounds meta or ironic. Vinny Testaverde gets name checked but with enough humor that it doesn't sound out of place now. Generally the songs are about the tribulations of the hood. Not as a complaint, but more a badge of honor. If anything the issues addressed in these old songs make current music sound trivial for not addressing it better. Tribe isn't beating you over the head with the issues, they're just looting your ears.
The cohesiveness of the album really draws attention to current lack of detail in album production. They establish the character from the art on the album cover as a narrator and use it for intros and transitions. The songs are individually about rapping, sex, problems, etc. but they all fit together and no song makes the next song sound weak or uninteresting. The main thing that I'll take from listening to Midnight Marauders this week is a higher standard for what makes a good album. That and, “I like my beats hard like two day old shit."
by Nathan Hankins (@nathanhmhankins)