Finally. Passed from label to label, a classic album called Kamaal the Abstract held in the mix, A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip has at long last released his first record in music’s Brave New World, titled The Renaissance. Less blatant (read: less poppy) than his solo debut, 1999’s stellar-enough Amplified, Tip’s latest is – more than anything he’s yet released – the work of a seasoned auteur. Save for a few drops of production goodness from the late J. Dilla and a handful of hooks offered by the finest of today’s high-profile soul singers, The Renaissance is 100 percent Q-Tip. He wrote it. He produced it. He recorded it. He played a number of the live instruments. He mixed it. He even offered up the not-always-great scratches sprinkled throughout. These are all good things; all you really need on a Q-Tip solo album is Q-Tip – few in the history of the genre can equal the man’s understanding and all-around aptitude. Also, unlike the majority of today’s charting artists, Q-Tip can handle the weight of a full-length without stocking his productions full of guests, interludes and other distractions that work against the high level of cohesion his records are long known for.
Similar to his Tribe, who offered a more authentic hip-hop sound than the peers of their time, Q-Tip presents soulful, jazzy hip-hop in the face of the trends the genre is currently drowning in – namely cheap production, unfocused work and empty lyrics. That said, the composition of the album isn’t as fluid or jazzy as the Tribe records – hardly a detriment to this very solid album. Production handled not on a souped-up computer but on the classic beat-based tool of the 90s, an MPC, The Renaissance comes off as a collection of organic loops, subtle live musicianship and dusty drums, just as many of the greatest hip-hop albums have since the beginning of the genre. Lots of piano, lots of sturdy bass lines and breaks; imagine what the often-too-clean Soulquarians’ productions would’ve sounded like in, say, 1991 and you’ll have an idea of the sound here. None of Tip’s arrangements here are too complex or deep, rather, the production focuses on clarity and soul, resulting in a sound that will likely remain just as timeless sounding as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders – a longtime focus, clearly, for the artist.
It must be said: damn if that classic voice and delivery doesn’t manage to sound just as good as it did 15 years ago. That it’s still so strong and consistent is a surprise, given the break in output. Lyrically Tip often plays the role of Elder Statesman, though never in a preachy or pompous manner. His writing still doesn’t demand any level of academic study or interpreting; everything here comes off as mostly obvious, but in a way that has always worked for the artist. While most of the big-name hooks (most notably the ones sung by D’Angelo and Norah Jones) work well enough, as a whole the blatant R&B element (most notably Raphael Saadiq’s lackluster contribution) feels a bit forced and gawky. Q-Tip himself can sing just fine and, more than maybe any rapper ever, Q-Tip himself can supply a memorable hook – as proven on the tracks not featuring other artists. As proven on countless Tribe tracks.
Opener “Johnny is Dead” kicks things off in an upbeat, fleshed-out manner before “Won’t Trade” kicks in. Over a simple start/stop beat Q-Tip shows off his influential lyrical lucidity, offering some of his best verses since 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life. “Getting’ Up,” a radio hit in-the-waiting, follows, offering a display of the artist’s fully developed understanding of his genre – coming off almost as a perfect model for boom-bap song craft. Really, every song here is worth getting to know. The stellar J. Dilla produced “Move” ends quickly before segueing into a mid-album hidden track (huh?) that functions as the album’s title – and maybe best – offering. Okay, I’ll say it: this song – as well as “Shaka,” the slow-building “Dance on Glass” and “Official” – sounds like classic A Tribe Called Quest. It’s true, and it’s an amazing thing to hear after all these years away from that sound.
The Renaissance may not be the best hip-hop album of 2008 but it’s certainly the most needed. Hell, it’s probably the best, too. All the young whippersnappers out there still have much to learn from this man and his art. Now if Tip could just get the critically acclaimed (though never released) Kamaal the Abstract, his intended label-shelved follow-up to Amplified, out for the jazzy hip-hop world to learn and love.