Critical Voices: Q-Tip, “The Renaissance”

October 30, 2008

In 2002, Q-Tip completed Kamaal the Abstract, a genre-bending album with hints of funk, rock, and hip-hop. While it shared the laid-back feel he showcased as head of A Tribe Called Quest, the album was much more ambitious-and arguably, less marketable-than anything he’d done before, and Arista refused to release it. It’s taken Q-Tip six years to rebound, but The Renaissance is every bit as good as his first solo joint, 1999’s Amplified. While it’s got nothing on his best work with the Tribe, it’s worth a listen-a little Q-Tip is always good for the soul.

The Renaissance’s first two singles, “Gettin’ Up” and “Move” are dancier fare than what we’re used to from Tip. Both tracks are produced by the late J Dilla, but where most of his catalogue sounds loose and appealingly unfinished, these beats are tight and polished-perhaps a result of auxiliary producers working on the beats after Dilla’s death in 2006. Whatever the case, both tracks have strong hooks and lighthearted rhymes, so they were apt choices for singles.

Elsewhere, the beats retain the loose feel of Amplified, even if the hooks never reach the same height as the singles. “Won’t Trade,” produced by the often-unbearable Mark Ronson, is the second track he’s produced for a major hip-hop artist this year to (surprisingly) hit the mark, the other being Nas’s “Fried Chicken.” “We Fight/We Love”, with neo-soul pioneer Raphael Saadiq, features excellent interplay between funky keyboards and Saadiq’s smooth vocals. “Believe,” featuring the long-lost D’Angelo (Where are you dude? How’s that physique?), works along the same lines but with heavier vocal multi-tracking, and it’s a perfect fit for Q-Tip’s high-pitched, elegantly-phrased rhymes.

Those rhymes, rather than the beats, are what most listeners will be interested in with The Renaissance. And while some might be disappointed by a decline in Q-Tip’s interest in socioeconomic matters, his flow is still appealingly quick and slippery in a way most other rappers’ aren’t. Most of the subject matter here relates to relationships, and Q-Tip paints a picture of a world where there’s a lot of love but also a whole lot of bad communication. At the end of the day, though, he’s still an optimist. On “Shaka,” arguably the album’s best song, Tip laments his lost loved ones but twists that sentiment by telling us, “Even if you have one person with you when it’s hard / they make it easy, celebrate them, let them know just who they are.”
Here’s to celebrating Q-Tip. He’s back.

Voice’s Choices: “Won’t Trade,” “Move On,” “Shaka”

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