Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Doc Is In: Q-Tip's Renaissance?

Ivan: Allow me to reintroduce this cat his name is Funk... D to the O C! Yes, yes y'all! Cbox extraordinaire Funk Doc has officially joined the HHIR team! Consider this the passing of the Roc chain! :D
Everybody welcome Funk Doc!

In the midst of the holiday season, we see another tradition being upheld: that of the '4th Quarter Rush.' Not a year goes by without a glut of Hip-Hop album releases entering stores just in time for the shopping season. (What a coincidence!) We have already seen Kanye and Ludacris come out to mixed, and muted, acclaim. On the horizon are Common's latest effort, Universal Mind Control, and the final album from the King of the South, Scarface. It's just as well some heavy hitters such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre & Eminem got pushed back to '09. (Although with Detox, it's more likely to be 2010!)

However, now that the drought is over, it can be easy to drown in this sea of shiny new material and miss the gem that's been overlooked. (Although it would have helped if it wasn't released on Election Day!)

Step forward Q-Tip with The Renaissance.

After Hip-Hop almost died (or threatened to), most of us are ready for a renaissance, a rebirth, of rap music. While this album may not start a revolution, it's definitely a rebirth of sorts for its creator, Jonathan Davis aka Kamaal Fareed aka Q-Tip. 9 years have passed since Q-Tip's first, and officially only, solo album, Amplified. But while Amplified seemed to cater for a more mainstream audience, The Renaissance evokes the sound and spirit of Q-Tip's legendary work with A Tribe Called Quest.

Mostly produced by himself, and sonically inspired by the work of his friend, the late, great J Dilla, proceedings kick off with the energetic "Johnny Is Dead". Q finds himself opining - "It's up to me to bring back the hope, put feeling in the music that you can quote..." - to the blissful relief of at least one jaded fan of rap music. The track's bassy backdrop provides a great platform for Q-Tip to let us know he's back in business; his unmistakable nasal flow is a welcome sound for sore ears, while the sung hook sees Q-Tip channelling Lenny Kravitz to surprisingly good effect.

On the Mark Ronson assisted "Won't Trade", a classic soul sample courtesy of Ruby Andrews is deftly used, with the track sounding like a lost Kanye West gem. Q-Tip raps about chicks who "...steady gas your ass, siphoning out your cash..." while being confident that they wouldn't trade him for nothing.

Tip moves into introspective mode on "You", but things pick up again with the cool Raphael Saadiq collabo, "We Fight/We Love". The male/female dynamic is further explored on "Manwomanboogie", a thick slice of funk full of twangy bass and hi-hats. Q-Tip makes great use of a groovy Can sample, while Amanda Diva's sassy hook is filled with attitude.

The album moves into full on dance mode with "Move", which, running at six minutes, is essentially two tracks. The first half has Q-Tip's quick time rap punctuated by a Jackson 5 sample, which at times seemingly sounds as if a Jackson brother is being restrained from singing! Q-Tip still manages to throw in some political comment, observing that "...this government seems to me like it's off course..." He got that right. The second half sees reference to the past - "...the Midnight Marauder on the scene..." - as well as the future, with Q-Tip re-affirming "It's the renaissance...rap".

"Dance On Glass" manages to be especially poignant with its opening line - "The people at the label said they want something to repeat, but all my people really want something for the streets..". This sets the tone for the track, with Q rapping acapella for a whole minute, calmly pointing out fellow rappers who have "..corny rap styles.." and "..lack the pedigree..". As the beat kicks in, he continues his critique of modern Hip-Hop, touching on "Ringtone rappers" and announcing it's "..time to turn the tide around..". This may sound like an attack on the new breed of rappers, but the track actually ends up sounding sincere and inspiring.

While the collaboration with D'Angelo sounds as expected - smooth and uplifting - the Norah Jones assisted "Life Is Better" surprisingly manages to sound engaging, where you might normally expect a radio-friendly snooze fest. Norah speaks for most of us when she sings about Hip-Hop enriching our lives, and she sandwiches a single Q-Tip verse which is effectively a rap roll call. Starting with Kool Herc, Cold Crush, Furious Five, ending with J Dilla, and with Biggie, 2Pac, Rakim et al in between, the track reminds us of all the great artists in rap history and reinforces the message: Life is better with Hip-Hop in our lives.

This nostalgia and fond look at the past culminates in "Shaka", where Q-Tip pays homage to lost ones, especially his late friend J Dilla. And Dilla's influence on Q-Tip is no more evident than on the album highlight "Gettin' Up".

Here we find him in contemplative mood, reassuring a prospective partner with words that sound almost like marriage vows, suggesting "We can start a clan just like the Kennedys.." However, what sounds on paper like a sickly-sweet ode to a loved one, ends up as a timeless mid tempo jam, with much credit reserved for some classic smooth production from none other than J Dilla.

This serves to sum up the album as a whole. Dilla's influence is strong - all of these tracks could have been produced by him - and Q-Tip manages to capture his sound amazingly well. The tracks are almost seamless, and the album is a cohesive piece, not simply a collection of random songs. This sounds like a true album, made without comprise, and not one made by committee. Every up and coming artist should see this album as a template and a kick in the ass.

The Renaissance explores a number of topics including love, politics, and change. The title is a bold one, but Q-Tip pulls it off. He is a legend who sounds refreshed, and more relevant than ever. His flow is as smooth as always, and his lyrics are filled with invention and purpose. Although Q-Tip may never be able to leave the Tribe, this is truly his renaissance.

Ivan's P.S.: I promised John Q of Lyrics to Go that I'd publicize a recent post he did on... you guessed it! Q-Tip! Check out John's post as a supplement to Funk Doc's intro HHIR piece!