This is a review of an album you almost never got to hear.
In 2001, riding off the success of the 1999 single "Vibrant Thing" and subsequent album Amplified, former A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip began work on his followup. He told the then-CEO of his record label, Clive Davis, that he wished to record a jazz-influenced album in the style of Miles Davis's classic fusion work Bitches' Brew. However, Davis eventually left the label, soon replaced by L.A. Reid.
Initially Reid supported the album, but upon hearing the work, believed it lacked commercial appeal. In 2006, Q-Tip began negotiations with Arista to release control of the album to him. Meanwhile, he began work on another album, The Renaissance, eventually released on Universal Motown in 2008. Featuring guest appearances by Norah Jones, Raphael Saadiq, and D'Angelo, the album struck an original yet accessible balance between hip-hop and soul, and earned great critical acccaim. Due to The Renaissance's success, Q-Tip finally decided to release the long-delayed, now fully remixed and remastered Kamaal the Abstract on Battery Records. So does this album live up to the hype?
In a word, yes.
From the opening chord of the first track, "Feelin'," Q-Tip announces that Kamaal the Abstract will not be a typical hip hop album. Scatting over a scratchy guitar riff and funky organ solo, the song melds rock, jazz, and rap into an irresistible mix. In a further nod to musical originality, one of the backup singers on the track is none other than Aisha Morris, daughter of legend Stevie Wonder. Feedback of various sorts accents Q-Tip's vocals — yes, he sings on multiple tracks, and does so extremely well.
Many of Kamaal the Abstract's tracks feature extended jazz solos, such as the flute breaks on "Do You Dig U" and keyboard runs on "A Million Times." The latter also sports a rocking guitar riff, which provides a nice counterpoint to the jazz leanings of the track. While the album supposedly lacked a commercial lead single, "Barely in Love" may have been a lead contender, sounding reminiscent of Beck's recent work. The catchy handclapped beats, creative use of percussion, and Q-Tip's singing (along with a typically excellent rap break) may cross genres, but could be appreciated by fans of rock and rap.
Another standout track, "Heels" recalls Prince's funkiest songs, yet transitions into jazzy chord changes in the chorus. The driving guitar and bass relentlessly thump as the piano softens the tone in the chorus. In addition, the song showcases Q-Tip's considerable MC skills and songwriting talent — only he could use a shoe metaphor to comment on a lady's character. "Abstractionisms" lives up to its title, with Q-Tip spitting his particular brand of hip-hop poetry. He even scats over the guitar solo, and a saxophone and piano riff best demonstrate how heavily he was listening to Davis at the time. In fact, the saxophonist is none other than Kenny Garrett, who played with Davis' ensemble.
"Even If It Is So" also brings on the funk, but the complicated bass line (which Q-Tip mimics in his rapid fire rapping style) and trumpet solo reveals more jazz leanings. His scatting emphasizes the thumping bass, which defies the listener to sit still while hearing this track. "Make It Work" even provides commentary on Kamaal the Abstract's theme, that he's "introducing to you a brand new sound," which is certainly the case with this ambitious album.
The iTunes and vinyl bonus track "Damn You're Cool" is not to be missed — it contains all the right ingredients for a classic Q-Tip track. From the highly original lyrics to Q-Tip's unique rapping style to a popping bass-driven beat, it is (along with "Barely in Love") perhaps the most immediately accessible song on the album. But it also shows that artistic innovation need not be sacrificed for a catchy single.
Only "Caring" is the somewhat weak track on the album, including surprisingly clichéd lyrics and limited vocal ability on Q-Tip's part. His voice better suits up tempo funk and rock tracks.
It should be noted that Kamaal the Abstract is not the first rap work to flirt with jazz. The early 90s spawned two such fusions: "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" by Us3, and "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" by Digable Planets. Q-Tip builds on these initial experiments and forges a new, sophisticated blend of hip hop, rock, funk, and jazz. While Kamaal the Abstract may have seemed avant-garde back in 2001, it deserves more appreciation in today's music landscape. Run, don't walk to pick up Q-Tip's latest masterpiece.