Q-Tip is a modern embodiment of the effects that the increasingly consolidated corporate conglomerates have on the cultural output in America. Back in 2002 Q-Tip — three years removed from the release of his commercially successful, dance club ready, album Amplified — was ready to initiate a paradigm shift in the hip hop sound.
Layering his laid back flows over jazz drenched melodies and intricate hip hop/jazz hybrid rhythms, Kamaal the Abstract was set to elevate the sound established by groups like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, the Beatnuts, The Roots and other intellectual hip hop acts of the 90s, resurrecting the original vision while updating the sound with a mature compositional approach to jazz never reached for in hip hop.
Unfortunately for all, the album was not deemed "commercially viable" by the powers that be, and it never saw the light of day beyond the promotional presses still hawked on Ebay as collector's items.
Fast forward six years and The Renaissance is finally, quietly released upon the cynical hip hop masses. The album, while exceptional throughout, will unfortunately feel like a musical compromise by those lucky or resourceful enough to have heard the available cuts off of Kamaal the Abstract.
His first studio release in nine years, Q-Tip took total control over The Renaissance. While one would except the result of this control to be something in the vein of his former aborted album the reality is an admission that his ideas were too advanced for any executive at a modern media conglomerate to ever comprehend in a musical or marketing sense.
The Renaissance is definitely a step up from 1999's Amplified. Gone are the radio friendly pop leanings of songs like "Vivrant Thing," replaced with a jazz fusion sound that, while no longer cutting edge, is definitely a cut above many of the others who have attempted similar deviations from the main stream hip hop production line.
On The Renaissance, the Jazz elements from Kamaal are prominently featured but in a far more toned down, recessive format. The music takes on more traditional jazz structures, almost self conscious in the constraints placed upon it to not delve too far into experimentation realms, so as not to once again cause a corporate demise for another great body of music.
From a vocal standpoint Q-Tip's flow and sound is in top form — his rhymes swinging seamlessly with the jazz rolling behind him — his voice doubling as instrument and story telling device. There is less of him actually singing than on Kamaal, but when he does work in a few notes, his delivery sounds surprisingly seasoned — in an obvious relative sense to the genre.
On "Life is Better," Q-Tip delivers a stellar vocal "duet" with Norah Jones that demonstrates the maturity and range he's developed over the past nine years.
Equally strong, "Gettin' Up" allows Q-tip to show off his newfound penchant for soulful vocalization, complimenting a piano arrangement totally foreign to hip hop, but never feeling out of place here thanks to J Dilla's first rate production.
"Manwomanboogie" displays Q-tip's love of old school funk, featuring Tip teaming up with Amanda Diva — belting out an appropriately throaty chorus — to deliver a jazzy and soulful jam behind what may be the funkiest bass line on the record.
If forced to choose, the most interesting cut on The Renaissance is the psychedelic and infectiously anthemic "Move." the second of two songs produced by J Dilla (formerly of Slum Village and favorite producer to Tribe, Pharcyde, Kanye, ect). The track combines eletronica, jazz, and bombastic funk outbursts with a violent change half way through that pushes the song into the realm of "hip hop opus." It is on tracks like "Move" when Q-Tip places his seemingly limitless potential on full display.
Overall there are few obvious singles on The Renaissance but in this rare case, that is not a knock. Instead Q-Tip has created an entire body of music that fits together as one coherent piece; much like the highly underrated Midnight Marauders.
Perhaps while giving in to the concession of "toning down" the jazz from his previous aborted attempt, Q-Tip makes his most poignant statement in creating such a rarity on the hip hop scene; a great album with a universal concept.
To those hip hop fans too young to remember Tribe, and for those who never harbored hope that Kamaal would see the light of day, this album will help Q-Tip join the modern consciousness of artists like Del and Outkast who have incorporated jazz and classic R&B into their hip hop, rebooting the scene that Q-Tip practically gave birth too all those years ago.
For those who were teased by the brilliance of Kamaal the Abstract,
this album will be thoroughly enjoyed but the feeling that Q-Tip is an unfair casualty of corporate, bureaucratic stupidity will forever serve as a sad side story to The Renaissance's release.