(Universal Motown; 2008)
By Colin McGowan | 12 November 2008
“What’s Q-Tip doing trapped in a bizzaro Gap ad from 1999? Wait—this is awesome.”
Thus was my introduction to the long-awaited Q-Tip album I didn’t know was being released, discovered parousing MTV Jams at two in the afternoon, and I stared slack-jawed, eyes transfixed on the Abstract, clad in a coonskin cap and a military jacket, smooth as fuck over smooth as fuck-er beat. Why, hello there! I believe you’ve provided me with the facts, Q-Tip, and I’m voting yes.
Either a follow-up to the not-quite-right Amplified (1999) or the unreleased, defiantly eclectic Kamaal The Abstract, this would seem to be just what we wanted— that is, Tip’s inimitable effortlessness oozing over autumnal breezes manifested as expressive keyboards and understated soul. On “Official,” Tip articulates his appeal: “I feel what the beat does / People fuck with me ‘cause / When the song end I become what the beat was.” It’s often that simple: a marriage of velvety voice and soft beds of percussion and grooves, that synergy reverberating in its own breezy sphere of cheeriness. “Manwomanboogie” is ass-shaking bass and crisp drums that achieves a level of funkiness Q-Tip’s neo-Native Tongues descendants spend careers attempting in vain to achieve. “We Fight / Love” is a warm stew of Raphael Saadiq’s soft crooning, a carefully plucked bassline, and Q-Tip’s sincerity shaped like clay into a narrative that favors concise imagery and insights on love over story. Which is just alright with me. It’s a shame this album didn’t see release earlier in the year; it feels like it was destined to soundtrack rollicking summer glee, and, like, picnics and stuff. Perhaps a testament to its sun-soaked aura is that it can, in the dead cold of November, transport one to a warmer locale.
This is all sort of inert, the rapping even uniformly workmanlike, but its static nature clearly defines the chasm between the record we wanted (and got) and the record we could all be losing our shit over. I’ve never bought into arguments over Q-Tip being some sort of rhyme genius—though enough disagreements through the years do breed some admittance that this is possible—but The Renaissance functions as a representation that he’s never needed to say much of anything to be immensely enjoyable. Though “Won’t Trade” is a half-assed concept track wherein Tip tosses a few sports cliches in his verses like discarded articles of clothing and “Shaka”‘s a lukewarm tribute artfully combined with some pseudo-inspirational musing, it’s all delivered with so much sheer charm that such qualms are a bit innocuous; in a sense, the deterioration of his writing lends his work a sense of inconsequentiality.
But who’s to say this has to be important? And “Shaka” kinda rules. It’s all ascending keys and shimmery guitars filtered through Q-Tip’s pleasantly minimalist production approach, and it’s facile, yeah, but the pleasures of this record are simple. I don’t spend late nights analyzing the merits of David Wain’s comedy, so I don’t find it necessary to discuss Q-Tip’s artistic vision here. Sometimes I just like to partake in a few well-executed dick jokes, and, in that vein, a damn good rap record is an especially welcome addition to my life in a year that’s seen so few of them.
Oh, and we need to talk about “Move,” the Dilla-helmed mindfuckingly brilliant album centerpiece. It commences with jubilant “ooh!“s and stretched horns, subverting itself in its middle section, restrained, but bubbling beneath its surface. Then it switches abruptly, Dilla accenting his adamant drums with oscillating blips of neon dots and some wonky, warped psychedelia. And during that three minute span Q-Tip blacks out, precise monotone clearly enunciating facts: “You see, the object of the game is we don’t see it as one.” It measures up adequately against Tribe’s best work, opulence amongst impressive sufficiency; the one moment where the Abstract commands attention. But, y’know, you should pay attention anyway, lest you miss out on 43 minutes of ingratiating, fluent cool.