“Forever” by Phife Dawg – Rolling Stone
Any posthumous album is, by nature, haunting — the sound of ghosts on wax forever floating in a state between unfinished project and final recordings. But in the case of Phife Dawg, who died in 2016 at tAt 45 from diabetes complications, this purgatory sense feels especially cruel. At the time of his death, born rapper Malik Taylor had amassed—albeit a tenuous— with New York hip-hop icons A Tribe Called Quest. This meeting led to Tribe’s latest album, the excellent We got it from here… Thank you 4 for your service, released in late 2016, eight months after Phife’s death.
To listen We got it from here, it’s obvious that Phife Dawg still had a lot to give. Indeed, the famous rapper had spent his last decade crafting a treasure trove of never-before-seen rhymes in what he hoped would be a sequel to his only solo album, 2000s Ventilation: Da LP. It was never completed, but his family… alongside business and music collaborator Dion Liverpool – finally finished the job with Alwaysincoming six years after the day of his death.
Unlike other posthumous albums, in which estates and family members use guesses and vague benchmarks to determine what the artist wanted, in this case Phife left, as Liverpool noted in a recent interview, “many plans and clues. Detailed notebooks included not only lyrics and song ideas, but also names of producers and guest stars and other specific details. Liverpool estimated that two-thirds of the album was either completed or almost fleshed out before he even intervenes.
Always, which boasts appearances from Phife’s ATCQ partner Q-Tip, as well as Busta Rhymes, Redman, Rapsody and Maseo from De la Soul, and production by 9and Marvel and Nottz, exists in an alternative hip-hop universe where The genre came to a halt after the Soulquarians split up in the early 2000s. The spirit of Phife’s friend and collaborator J Dilla looms almost as tall as Phife himself; the late hip-hop visionary, who died in 2006, produced several tracks on Always (the lyrically deft “Nutshell, Pt. 2”), and Dilla’s bandmates are on hand to mimic his vibe (see the “French Kiss Trois”, produced by Potatohead People, featuring Dilla’s brother, Illa J). On the chilling “Dear Dilla”, Phife praises J Dilla on the verse, while Q-Tip uses the chorus to do the same with Phife.
Phife Dawg has always been, among other things, a shameless Golden Age nostalgic, and on Always we often hear him reminiscing on what he considered the glory days of hip-hop. “Wow Factor” screams pioneers like Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Boogie Down Productions. “I’m that 70s baby,” he rhymes. Reppin’ 90s hip-hop. But it’s his pleas for the future that inadvertently end up being the most heartfelt. “I can’t wait to help my unborn child read their first book,” he rhymes on “Fallback.” “Or daddy’s little girl ask, ‘Dad, what’s a hook?’ “
Always can be emotionally brutal listening. “Cheryl’s Big Son” Opener Features a poignant cassette recording of Malik Taylor as a child, while a spoken poem by his mother Cheryl Boyce-Taylor presents “Round Irving High School” (“Phife was blues, hip-hop and hot jazz”, she sings). But it’s the closest album “Forever” which will perpetually stand out as a punch for fans of the nimble rapper. Phife recorded the verse just three days before his death, tracing his story with A Tribe Called Quest — “four brothers with the mic and a dream” — and eschewing their turbulent past in favor of an olive branch: “I love muhfuckers, real spit, all the facts / Deep in my soul I believe what will be / Requiem for a tribe.
For anyone who watched the band Rhythms, rhymes and life documentary with a deep tinge of regret and sadness, it’s both hard and admirable to hear lines from “Forever”, like “If I could start all over again / I’d sit down with my friend /There was no reason for this shit to end. In Always, we both hear a middle-aged man looking back his personal and professional successes and failures, and an artist confronted without knowing it mortality and try to make peace in the end.