Nine years can be a lifetime in music. For an average artist, that’s enough time to release 3-4 albums. For a genre, it’s enough time to birth a half-dozen hyphenated subgenres. And for hip-hop, that goes double. Kanye West has released four albums in half that amount of time, and Lupe Fiasco will have retired before he even reaches his fifth. So if it seems like eons since Q-Tip released his solo debut Amplified, relatively speaking, it has been. The legendary emcee and former member of A Tribe Called Quest has recorded at least three albums since 1999, but had been unsuccessful in getting them released. The jazz fusion/soul-tinged Kamaal the Abstract was pulled after promos were sent out, and Open ran into roadblocks at two labels.
After a long and winding process of recording, label shopping and reconfiguring, Q-Tip emerges refreshed and energized with the brand new The Renaissance, an album that reveals Q-Tip as strong as he’s ever sounded, with an incredibly bright and solid set of songs. To call this `long-awaited’ is the understatement of the year. While, inevitably, the expectations game can be a dicey one after such long periods of anticipation, The Renaissance not only meets, but exceeds those expectations. To hear Tip flow on leadoff track “Johnny Is Dead,” it would appear that no time had passed at all. While Jay-Z, T.I. and Kanye have reinvented themselves numerous times in recent years, The Renaissance is classic Q-Tip, crisp and alive with an abundance of feel good vibes.
The Renaissance presents 12 tracks of everything that Q-Tip does best—soulful melodies, jazz-inflected samples and arrangements, positive rhymes, a laid-back party vibe and a flow “like butter.” Q-Tip produces all but one track, himself, making classic soul samples pop and crackle, coming to life with a vibrancy that’s timeless, yet with a vintage feel. Yet, the album kicks off with a live band arrangement (one of quite a few actually) on “Johnny Is Dead,” a hypnotic opener that finds Tip offering his humility: “I’m not a deity/ I’m far from perfect, see.” Of course, Q-Tip’s high speed delivery and nonchalant confidence on “Won’t Trade” shows a slightly amped up variation of the super cool emcee, giving listeners a strong reminder that this is one of the greatest rappers of all time we’re dealing with here.
It’s hard not to feel good when listening to the smooth and sparkling piano of single “Gettin’ Up,” a standout celebration of life and love, which is a fairly rare commodity when quite a few rappers have since given into their dark sides. Relationships provide fodder for “You” and “We Laugh/We Love,” two deeper, more complex examinations of personal connections. On the former, Q-Tip addresses a potentially cheating lover with simultaneous suspicion and empathy (“We’ll make amends if you admit it“), while in the latter, Tip narrates the complicated relationship between a woman and her man, who happens to be deployed in Iraq. “Manwomanboogie” lightens the mood afterward, with an off-kilter rhyme and a deep funk progression, complete with a Can sample.
Two-part standout “Move” is the one track not produced by Q-Tip, but rather the late J Dilla, and unsurprisingly, it’s a mind-blower. Dilla’s chopped-up Jackson Five sample lays an explosive backdrop for Q-Tip’s furious rhymes, calling out the suckers “like cold grits without the hot sauce.” Damn. From there he drops an a cappella lyric for a solid minute in “Dance on Glass” before the cosmic beat comes in, and though it’s a great beat at that, you can’t help but admire the ambitious introduction. The Norah Jones-boasting “Life is Better” runs down a list of legendary names, all told with joy and reverence, while trippy closer “Shaka” brings an old school Tribe sound into the 21st Century, laying big synth sounds over organic pianos.
One of the last things that Q-Tip rhymes on The Renaissance is “Through the ins and outs of life’s revolving doors/ I’m gonna see that/ I’m still getting more.” The more important factor, however, is that he still has a lot to give, and even after nine years and a couple of shelved albums, his artistic well remains brimming with solid material. The Renaissance isn’t just notable for marking the return of a legend, but for being an incredible and joyful album, the likes of which have been a rare commodity in hip-hop in 2008. Now that we need Q-Tip more than ever, the Abstract has heeded the call.
Video: “Gettin’ Up”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.