Q-Tip: “The Renaissance”
Maybe it’s because hip-hop trends are cyclical, or maybe it’s because the scene just hasn’t changed that much over the past two decades; whichever the case, Q-Tip remains as much an anomaly in 2008 as he was in 1988, a towering figure whose influence on the genre looms large even as he himself seems perpetually on the outside of it. Hip-hop is arguably the most creatively vibrant of all genres in the 2000s, but even as the boundaries of the style continue to expand, be it due to Lil’ Wayne’s inspired weirdness or Outkast’s fathomless eclecticism, Q-Tip is still making more or less the same kinds of records he was making with A Tribe Called Quest in the early 90s– sleek, simple, and soulful, albums more concerned with elegance and craft than with breaking into the mainstream or pushing rap into the next realm. But though he is oft imitated, Q-Tip remains peerless, a pioneer to whom the genre owes much, but with whom nobody’s ever really caught up.
His decision to call his new record The Renaissance, then, is an inspired one. The word is literally translated as “rebirth,” and on one level that’s not really what’s happening here– for the most part, the album sounds very much like a continuation of what he was doing with Tribe in their final days. But then again, nobody else in the hip-hop world has been making music like this since Tribe disbanded, especially since Q-Tip has been wallowing in record label purgatory, still recording music but unable to release it to the public, so, in that sense, this stuff sounds as fresh and full of life now as it ever did before, reminding us that Q-Tip is one of a kind, and no matter how many rappers and producers try to ape his style, they’ll never be anything more than poseurs. Maybe it isn’t exactly a rebirth, but it’s certainly full of life.
The genius of Q-Tip, of course, has always been his sense of craft, which is what makes this new record such a knockout. Hip-hop is a genre known for its excesses and its overreach, which can be a blessing and a curse, but Q-Tip’s work has always been marked by its leanness, its economy, its modesty. Those aren’t necessarily words that set the toes a-tappin’, but who can argue that his work with Tribe remains as vital and forward-thinking today as it did when it first released? The Renaissance feels very much like a classic work for the same reasons that Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders remain so essential– because it’s an album that’s defined not by how far it pushes the envelope, but by its intelligence, its musical sophistication, the chemistry of the musicians involved and the unflinching vision of its auteur.
To be sure, it’s not an album that flaunts its ingenuity or its innovation, but Q-Tip’s sense of craft is so finely honed that the album feels almost impossibly smooth, sleek, and fully-formed, casting a steadily seductive spell that makes the album grow in stature with every repeated listen. This is immaculately elegant, tasteful jazz– who else but Q-Tip is classy enough to have jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel play on his albums?– to the extent that one is almost inclined to call it cocktail party rap, but that makes it sound tame, studied, or simply boring, when it is certainly none of those things. No, this is a hip-hop album driven by a live band, which gives it a jazzy, improvisational warmth, and the samples and production flourishes feel so organic that it’s as if this album were born fully-formed and complete, in an instantaneous burst of creativity. (Maybe that’s where he got the title.)
The sheer smartness of the record is a testament to Q-Tip, of course, who proves again why he’s unparalleled both as an artist and a craftsman. On one level, these tracks all play within the basic rules of hip-hop, many of them club-ready, some of them message tracks, most of them clearly influenced by jazz and all of them deeply-felt and soulful. But his voice– both as an MC and as a producer– is one of a kind, which makes all of his work feel intensely personal, and this album is certainly no exception. More than anything, The Renaissance plays like an unfolding of Q-Tip’s singular vision; though the songs touch on any number of subjects, all of them very socially-aware and challenging, the music ebbs and flows together like one seamless tapestry, even when he brings in special guests, as he does when he brings in soulman Raphael Saadiq on the soulful, two-sided relationship song, “We Fight/We Love,” or when Norah Jones shows up to provide a perfectly smoky hook for the warm, jazzy “Life is Better.” Even the man’s use of samples demonstrates his immense good taste and his sense of craft; he compliments his sports metaphors on “Won’t Trade” with some newsreel material that deftly avoids sounding ham-fisted or corny, and he wisely cut the Barack Obama sample that appeared in an early, leaked version of “Shaka,” which might have made the song feel topical rather than timeless.
To say that it’s a hip-hop album like no other might not be entirely accurate– after all, it has clear antecedent in Q-Tip’s previous body of work, both with his former band and as a solo performer– but it is, if nothing else, further notice that this is a hip-hop artist like no other, a master of the form whose grip is so steady, his vision so bold, and his artistry so deft that he continues to be a pioneer, by sheer virtue of the fact that what he does, nobody else can match. He’s an anomaly through and through– a rapper and producer who feels like he’s in the genre but not of it, and his music sounds as timeless today as it ever has before.