Admit it now, you didn’t think he’d do it, did you? Phife, everyone’s favorite 5-footer, seemed increasingly uninterested and uninvolved in A Tribe Called Quest and hip hop in general since his move to Atlanta five years ago. So it seemed possible that he would simply fade away into obscurity after the group’s breakup. With the release of his first solo album, however, the man also known as Mutty Ranks is proving everyone wrong and happily playing the underdog role. Decked out in New York Jets apparel on the album cover — jersey number 5, “Phifey” — the comparison is irresistible to his team’s wide receiver, the not-so-tall Wayne Chrebet: Constantly overlooked and underrated, this talented man is expected to fail after losing a star teammate.

Ventilation kicks off with some big early plays, helped out by the coaching of all-star producers JayDee, Pete Rock and DJ Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal), who laces the cascading harps of “Alphabet Soup” and the neck-snapping “D.R.U.G.S.” Phife’s aggressive, angry lyrics show he still has a hunger for the game. He vents during “Flawless” about superficial MCs: “Phat Farm shorts with a garter belt, looking like a whore/or a purple bandanna ’cause it matches your shawl?/Now tell me what you’re rhymin’ for/This shit is all about flows, fuck a fashion show.” On numerous occasions, he seems to be referring to his former partners, revealing that the Tribe split wasn’t so amicable. Despite its early successes, as the album wears on, it’s clear Phife isn’t championship material on his own. Stealing hooks from Ann Arbor’s Invincible on “Lemme Find Out” and Redman on “The Club Hoppa” draws penalty flags, but more detrimental is the lack of talented help. Phife has spoken about numerous possible collaborations in interviews and definitely has the clout to recruit, so the absence of big-name guests is curious. Ventilation: da LP had the potential to be much more, but Phife has his heart in the right place and it’s nice to have him back.

Luke Forrest writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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