In the 1990s hip hop reached a high point for the genre that it collectively has not come close to duplicating since. Groups like The Roots, The Pharcyde, The Black Eyed Peas, Slum Village, The Beatnuts, Hieroglyphics, and of course Tribe Called Quest provided an alternative to gangsta' rap that drew on the roots of various forms of African American music and focused on more conceptual, intellectual, and esoteric concepts as opposed to gangsta' rap's gritty, realistic portrayals of the American ghettos and gang life.
While both sub-genres of "rap" had their positive musical qualities — no one can deny the importance and poetic value of Tupac — hip hop definitely provided a deeper, richer, more sensory musical experience than gangsta rap. Unfortunately, while both genres still exist in an increasingly shallow form today (no, Kanye West's synthed-out vocals don't make him an intellectual and Tupac got and survived being shot way before 50 Cent), really only gangsta' rap or "commercial rap" has thrived on into the aughts. So much so that it has assumed the moniker of "rap" while the sound of groups like De La Soul are simply remembered as a style of "hip hop," a term now frequently used interchangeably with the farcical "indie rap," masquerading as something unique (like sampling 70s soul music is the equivalent of inventing the Wall of Sound).
But in 2008 a rare gem arose above the sewage flowing through the streets. After a nine year hiatus since his first solo record (the disappointingly commercial Amplified), former Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip recorded an outstanding hip hop album aptly entitle The Renaissance. The record was a slick blend of jazz and hip hop, hearkening back to his work with Tribe, but with one key difference. While every album with Tribe featured sample loops from some of the greatest jazz artists in history, this time Q-Tip brought many of the artists directly into the studio (Kurt Rosenwinkle, Derrik Hodge, and the Robert Glasper Trio) and dragged the jazz from the background to the forefront, featuring it prominently (still using some samples). As always Q-Tip rolled out his signature flows, this time blending his vocals into the instrumental workings of the music, functioning as an instrument in and of itself. It was very clear that Q-tip had learned some new tricks since Amplified.
Rewind to April 23 2002, the original release date for Q-Tip's intended follow up to Amplified, Kamaal the Abstract. A complete divergence from his previous record (or any hip hop album ever recorded), it was drenched in quality fusion jazz, featuring some of the hottest musicians of the time in the genre, plucked from the Miles Davis family tree. But when Clive Davis left Arista Records the project was shelved based on concerns over its commercial viability. And while various cuts off the album have circulated the internet for years (including some copies of a promo EP on Ebay), Kamaal the Abstract had nearly joined the ranks of Smile and Chinese Democracy as the most notorious unfinished works in popular music history.
But Brian Wilson eventually finished Smile (an absolutely amazing record). Axl actually regained his sanity long enough to put the finishing touches on Chinese Democracy. And now — with the success of The Renaissance convincing Arista of Q-Tip's continued financial viability (like they needed to be reminded that there are still intelligent music fans out there even though Nickleback does sell a lot of records) — eight years after it was originally recorded Kamaal the Abstract has been bestowed upon the public.
The record is an absolute and unquestionable masterpiece. Jazz fans will undoubtedly complain about the restrictions placed on the masterful musicians like Kenny Garrett by the pop structures of the songs. And there will definitely be some hip hop fans that will lack the attention span and musical appreciation to accept aspects like the stellar flute work of Gary Thomas (a former Miles Davis sideman) on "Do U Dig U." But for those whose musical tastes cover a wide spectrum of genres the genius of the record will be immediately evident.
While the entire album features first class musicianship and Q-Tip in classic form — rhyming and, quite often successfully, singing soulfully — the three best tracks here are the aforementioned "Do U Dig U," "Barely in Love." and "Abstractionism."
The work of Gary Thomas on "Do U Dig U" is a big part of that analysis but the slick guitar work of Kurt Rosenwinkel (featured on The Renaissance) also greatly contributes to the quality of the track. On this 7:19 minute jam-out Q-Tip makes his presence felt but knows when to fall back into the symmetry of the vibrations emanating from this feel good, slow grove.
"Barely in Love" is the poppiest, funkiest jam on the record. The song is minimalism at its finest with Q-Tip turning in an outstanding vocal performance and demonstrating his continued ability to write complexly structured lyrics, even about the most basic actions or, in this case, emotions. Throw in the tribal beats and blues/funk riffs and Q-Tip has created a minimalisit jazz/pop hybrid unlike anything ever heard before.
"Abstractionism" is simply the epitome of the new direction that Q-Tip was seeking by creating his jazz-freakout, alter-ego, the mysterious Kamaal Fareed. The vocals and rhymes are excellent, as Q-Tip once again assimilates into the flow of the song, right along into the crashing, Bitches Brew-style, crescendo, spitting out madness while tenor saxophonist Kenny "the Truth" Garrett (one of Mile Davis' last finds) rips out the most exciting explosion of free-form jazz on the album with his tool of the trade. Stealing the show with his incredible skill, and then relenting again to the lead MC to put an end to album's finest achievement, the interplay of Garrett and Q-Tip is absolutely exceptional .
With his 2009 release Kamaal the Abstract, Q-Tip shows the world the evolution possible if intellectual "back pack" hip hop had survived in earnest (it still exists on a more obscure level). Arista may have been right to an extent. This record is definitely more a work of art than a commercially viable, high volume monetary generator (like say "Vivrant Thing"). But for all hip hop fans (especially those who missed Tribe the first time around) this is a must own record, if only to understand the depth that is possible in a genre that now sorely lacks quality in most respects. For jazz fans the benefits could be two fold; the record may provide more exposure for an important genre that is commercially suffering at the time being. And on a more aesthetic level, it may show some jazz listeners that there is value in hip hop, a genre typically stereotyped as shallow and without merit. For all fans, Kamaal the Abstract stands as a testament to the more idealistic concepts of musical creativity that Q-Tip has always embodied..