A Tribe Called Quest is famous for many things in the hip-hop world. There were very few hip-hop groups that seemed to be quite as interested in being musical, from the jazzy beats and samples to Q-Tip's almost melodic enunciation. A Tribe Called Quest was also full of what listeners felt were genuinely nice guys. Even when songs weren't full of overt preaching, they projected warmth and concern. This is the conventional wisdom about A Tribe Called Quest, although I think that the conventional wisdom misses one important fact: although the group did show certain bohemian tendancies, they were not an "alternative rap" group. A Tribe Called Quest was a mainstream group with street cred that to this day forms a part of the hip-hop canon.
All of these facts about A Tribe Called Quest can be seen from any of their studio albums, although I honestly have little experience or liking of their post-Midnight Marauders work. But People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, their debut album, released in 1990, has something that was not matched in their other albums: creative, conceptual song writing. For a group of teenagers, it was incredibly well produced, but beyond that, it has a collection of hip-hop songs that I haven't really seen matched since.
It isn't just that A Tribe Called Quest is full of intelligent lyrics: there are lots of MCs that write intelligent, positive lyrics. A Tribe Called Quest put those lyrics into actual songs that were full of something more than generic positive messages. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammed come up with some interesting themes for songs: pubic lice, the travails of a French immigrant, an ill-fated road trip to California and a rousing call and response singalong about the dangers of a high cholesterol diet; to name a few. The musical textures seems to be as varied as the lyrics and concepts, and includes some memorable samples, such as the Walk on the Wild Side sample on "Can I Kick It?". Throughout the album, there seems to be a consistent effort to use most music and lyrics to set up an atmosphere and paint pictures with details and specifics.
These are the reasons that among the many good albums of A Tribe Called Quest, this is my favorite, an opinion that seems to be in a critical minority. I don't know why A Tribe Called Quest pulled back on song writing in favor of lyricism on the next two albums; and also why this album wasn't a bigger example to hip-hop groups to come. In my opinion, I can't think of any hip-hop groups who ever put as much songwriting into an album as A Tribe Called Quest did here.