Author Hanif Abdurraqib’s new book on A Tribe Called Quest straddles the line between listening guide and love letter
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest / Hanif Abdurraqib / University of Texas Press / February 1, 2019 / Paperback / $16.95 / 215 pp / 978-1-4773-1648-1
The truth is, I had heard only one song by A Tribe Called Quest when I picked up Go Ahead in the Rain, Hanif Abdurraqib’s monograph on the group. (Forgive me. I have no excuse.) I wanted to read the book because I’m a fan of Abdurraqib’s, and because I thought reading it would be a chance to learn about Tribe. In that, I was right. Go Ahead in the Rain forces an education in A Tribe Called Quest that I might not have had otherwise. Spotify supplied me with the actual music, but Abdurraqib supplied me with guidance, and a year-by-year recap of Tribe’s endeavors.
Yet the book is more than just a summary and analysis of one rap group’s career. It’s also a messy, wide-ranging history of hip-hop during its first renaissance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This aspect of the book is not diligent or complete, but it’s not really intended to be. Hip-hop in this era was, I realized in reading, a root system. It branched uncontainably, it varied in strength and density, and it was organized via biology rather than geometry. Abdurraqib’s references to and explanations of this root system are, appropriately, as untidy as the system itself. His analysis led me down dozens of pathways: Ice Cube’s first solo album, Queen Latifah’s early collaborative work, Minnie Riperton, Mobb Deep.
Beyond all this, there is Abdurraqib’s relationship to Tribe, and how the band has fit into his life over the years. The book combines methodical music criticism with luminous personal essay and unerring cultural intelligence. Abdurraqib writes letters to members of Tribe and others, and he arranges chapters and sections with a poet’s inscrutable logic. It’s not a genre-specific book, and it’s all the more intriguing for this quality.
However, the resulting cocktail is imperfect. The author’s passion for his subject leads him into hyperbole too often. For example: “there are so few mountains higher than the mountain A Tribe Called Quest found themselves on after their first three albums.” Debatable at best. Three excellent albums is not the Nobel Prize. Plus, the lyricism of Abdurraqib as essayist comes near clashing with the unambiguous prose of Abdurraqib as music journalist. The disparate styles prove his virtuosity as a writer, but the poetic language renders the journalistic language colorless. A sentence like “The wind blows a memory of someone into a room through sound, and the architect captures that memory with their bare hands and puts it on wax” transforms a sentence like “Arguably, Q-Tip’s vision outpaced any reasonable future the collective could have had together” into bland competence.
Despite these minor flaws, Go Ahead in the Rain is both the promised love letter of its cover image and a remarkably helpful guide to Tribe neophytes. Those who know nothing will know slightly more, and will find a place to start. Those who grew up listening to these records—and, truly, I regret that I didn’t—are likely to find joy and connection in Abdurraqib’s memories.