In the 9 years since his solo debut, Amplified, former A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip has gone through some serious label issues. His planned second album, Kamaal the Abstract, was shelved by Arista Records right before its’ release for being uncommercial, while various other album titles and release dates have come and gone. Tip, meanwhile, has kept himself busy by working as a club DJ, occasionally hosting VH-1 specials, reuniting with his Tribe brethren for a couple of tours, and apparently dating Oscar-nominated actresses (see Kidman, Nicole) and pop divas (Jackson, Janet).
Finally, The Renaissance, Tip’s long-awaited official sophomore effort, has arrived, and much to my surprise, it’s an excellent effort. After the blatantly club-centric sound of Amplified, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album, but Q-Tip does an admirable job of keeping the album danceable while maintaining a left-of-center vibe that matches up admirably with some of Tribe’s best work. It’s an album befitting Tip’s status as a hip-hop elder statesman while not sounding “old-school”. Most importantly, Q-Tip remains true to himself, featuring not one concession to modern-day popular hip-hop and not even any guest rappers.
One thing that makes The Renaissance special is that Tip did most of this album with a live band and produced almost every track on the album himself. The one notable exception is the propulsive Move, a track that’s sure to get people bumrushing the dance floor. Produced by the late J. Dilla, it reconstructs a Jackson 5 Dancing Machine sample until it’s rendered almost unrecognizable.
More typical of The Renaissance‘s vibe is the first single Gettin’ Up, a sunny love song with an easygoing vibe. In addition to doing all of the rhyming on this album in his signature nasal voice, Tip also sings most of the choruses on this album and has a pretty serviceable singing voice. He won’t blow you away with his emcee skills, but his rapping has always been more about vibe than “oh sh*t, did you hear what he just said??”.
Other highlights on The Renaissance include Dance on Glass, on which Tip references his own high-water mark Midnight Marauders and then creates a song that would have fit perfectly on that landmark album. The mellow We Fight/Love features Raphael Saadiq on vocals and is more immediate to me than anything on Raphael’s current The Way I See It album. Tip is at his lyrical best here, dedicating a verse to a couple in romantic tumult while his second verse turns political, discussing the conflict of a soldier. Life is Better is Tip’s tribute to hip-hop history. Tip shouts out just about every important rapper over a funk-laced groove and a chorus by Norah Jones, who appears to be channeling her former classmate Erykah Badu on this song. Either that, or I didn’t realize how similar the two sounded until now.
The Renaissance‘s emotional center is the album’s final track, Shaka. Tip pays tribute to his deceased friends (and his deceased father) without sounding mournful. It’s the type of celebratory send-off that most folks hope they’re sent into the next lifetime with.
There’s not one bad track on The Renaissance, although one would hope that after 9 years, enough good material would be amassed to make a good album, right? Q-Tip serves us with a pleasant surprise here, making an album that harkens back to the glory days of A Tribe Called Quest (although Phife Dawg’s presence is missed) with a contemporary flair. It’s good enough to wipe the bad taste of Tip’s solo debut out of any listener’s mouth, and goes a long way towards restoring the good name of a hip-hop icon.