The 2016 release of We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service, A Tribe Called Quest’s reunion opus, could have acted as a final goodbye for Phife Dawg. Born Malik Taylor, the late rapper passed away from diabetes-related complications at age 45, a little less than eight months before the album’s release. Even with the fractured group dynamics in the years leading up to the final album, each Phife cameo on the remarkably great project felt ripped from the group’s heyday — full of life and technical vigor that sets the standard for what rap should be.
But it’s clear that Phife had more to say. Forever, the first posthumous album from the late legend, was constructed from unfinished demos by Dion Liverpool, the rapper’s longtime DJ (aka DJ Rasta Root), for the past four years. The general feeling surrounding posthumous releases is shrouded in questions of morality, wondering if the artist’s vision is being truly carried out — if that’s possible at all. But Forever grants a mirror into Phife’s soul in the post-ATCQ breakup years. His musings on the importance of family and dedication to those around him, draped in a tight cloak of agile raps that could act as the standard for any era, exist as a timeless sendoff fitting for a legend.
On “Nutshell Pt. 2,” he’s accompanied by Busta Rhymes and Redman, forming a cypher of brotherly love that elicits the purest form of nostalgia. Over an old J-Dilla beat, Phife embarks on a lengthy stretch of bars tied together by playful alliteration that doesn’t grow stale. The loop from one of his closest collaborators, surrounded by his dear friends on the track, gives his voice rejuvenated life as if he’s playing with home field advantage. From the outset, it’s clear that there will be a production tone, which dampens the project’s variety. The warm, Dilla-esque beats cover the whole project, showcasing Phife’s excellency over this sound. Yet, it leaves you wondering if he had more to show over a different selection of beats.
Even so, familiarity is this album’s greatest strength. “Residual Curiosities,” with its sauntering organ production and claps that feel like it belongs on a family reunion playlist, provides a fitting backdrop for Phife to reminisce on the swirling world of early ATCQ stardom. “People come into your life for a reason, season/Seventeen years and shorty still got me cheesin’,” he raps, recounting a chance meeting after a Detroit concert that stuck with him until the end of time.
Strengthened by production that works in tune with his humanity, Phife is able to espouse the concepts that enrich his soul. He loved and appreciated his family, marked by the numerous voicemails that appear on tracks like “Sorry” and “Wow Factor.” On the opening song “Only a Coward,” Phife takes it back to the cautionary tale era of 80s Rap, telling the story of a rich rapper who’s abandoned his family duties in lieu of the trappings of a lavish lifestyle. “You need your ass whooped, can’t bе right upstairs/Lookin’ like a million bucks, won’t do that baby girl’s hair,” he raps, skewering this straw man image of a rapper who can’t be bothered with domestic life. Phife exalts these mundanities, finding increased appreciation in these moments as his body had begun to fail him. When he recounts cornerstone familial moments, rapping about his stepson’s AAU basketball growth and his wife’s life-saving commitment on “God Send,” listeners get the duality of what family meant to him. He was there to take care of them, and in turn they provided for him, granting him peace in his later days.
The best moments of Forever are the emotional heavyweights, forming the most gripping sections, as well as the most difficult listens. “Dear Dilla” is Phife’s open letter to his friend J Dilla, memorializing one of the game’s greatest producers. Phife skillfully rambles on how the genre misses both his sound and his soul. It feels like a classic Tribe track, until Q-Tip’s appearance on the chorus rips through the nostalgic haze: “It’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think ’bout you/(Dear Dilla) I keep my head to the sky ’cause I know Phife’s there too.” The sobering reality that both legends have moved on, leaving their friends and families to pick up the pieces, casts a melancholic shadow over the track.
The titular closer is Phife’s release. It takes all of his frustrations with Tribe’s breakup, his anxieties and gripes with the friends he perfected his craft with, and releases them. It’s a love letter to Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White. He accepts the flaws and lack of communication that killed the group, reaching a point of peace with the chaotic past: “Can’t speak for everybody or where my dudes’ heads are at/But I love you motherfuckers, true spit, all facts/Deep in my soul, I believe what will be shall be/Requiem for a Tribe, ‘Ro, Sha’, Kamal, and Malik.” He had reached a point where the pain, both physical and emotional, was finally something he wanted to share, on his own terms. Phife’s untimely death will forever remain heartbreaking. But with Forever’s existence and his openness, we can find solace that the legend achieved a semblance of peace in his final years.
Phife Dawg's album: well done. That's twice they've released a flawless posthumous album.. didn't feel forced in any way..
— Furious Styles (@FuriousStylesIV) March 25, 2022
Anyone else enjoying Forever by Phife Dawg as much I am? Phife's previous solo stuff didn't do a ton for me, but basically his farewell message to ATCQ is outstanding.
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) March 31, 2022
Tonight is a good night to talk about this Phife Dawg album… everybody needs to go listen to that beautiful body of work…
— MB. 🇧🇲🇯🇲 (@Marc_Burr) April 1, 2022