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Listen Up: Reunion and Remembrance

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Leonard Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and artist. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Leonard Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and artist. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

One could probably say that any time is an uncertain time, but Nov. 2016 suddenly feels extremely so. Still, there can be good uncertainty and bad uncertainty — the biggest music release of last week falls under good uncertainty, in the sense that it’s a surprise it exists at all.

“We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service” A Tribe Called Quest

A Tribe Called Quest is a key contributor to an evolution in rap music. Sampling jazz and Lou Reed, it took the genre in a less macho, more artistic direction. “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders,” released in 1991 and 1993, respectively, are both essentials. The group’s last record came out in 1998. The group has been mostly absent since then, but its inspiration has spread into styles of artists like André 3000 and Kanye West.

A serendipitous course of events found the childhood friends coming together to work on their first record in 18 years in late 2015. But as the album neared completion, group member emcee Phife Dawg passed away from complications of diabetes. The other members, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White completed the work and gave it a title thought of by Phife, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service,” even though Q-Tip said the remaining members do not understand the meaning.

The album is 16 songs, running for just over an hour, and is one of the best records front-to-back I have heard this year. It has a throwback sound that still feels modern, because Tribe has had such an affect on what is considered the modern sound. The instrumentals feel intricately composed, one song flowing perfectly into the next.

It doesn’t ignore politics; the chorus of “We the People….” satirically says, “All you black folks you must go/ All you Mexicans you must go/ And all you poor folks you must go/ Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways,” and “The Donald” directly addresses its namesake.

“Solid Wall of Sound” samples Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” then swerves into a smooth outro. It is the slowest track on the album, while the rest bounce with Tribe’s master production. Associates of the group, old and new, pop up all over the record, including Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, as well as André 3000 and West. They all find their place on their features, without interrupting the flow of the record.

With Phife’s death, “We got it from Here” is the group’s final album. It is a fantastic, conscious and listenable statement that might have accomplished a rare feat in music: releasing classic albums 20-plus years apart.

“Hallelujah” Leonard Cohen

It might be insulting to try to summarize the career of Leonard Cohen — which spanned half a century — to just one song. But “Hallelujah” is one of the greatest compositions of the English language, a spellbinding an abstract work of prose.

Its presence in popular culture is gargantuan, thanks in no small part to the over 300 cover versions, the most famous of which include versions by Jeff Buckley, John Cale and Rufus Wainwright. Cohen originally wrote over 80 verses that artists pick and choose from, but it is these indispensable lines that have become so well known: “Well I heard there was a secret chord/ That David played and it pleased the Lord/ But you don’t really care for music do you?”

Cohen died last week at age 82, just a few weeks after releasing his final album “You Want it Darker.” One of the too many legendary musicians to die in 2016, Cohen’s own music eulogizes him — it is intensely personal yet speaks to the whole human experience. Like the canons of David Bowie and Prince, Cohen’s discography will be listened for many decades from now. As long as there are people wondering how to keep going, Cohen’s music will be played. And if anyone is looking for encouragement, the best they can do is listen to “Hallelujah” and know that there is still beauty in the world.

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